Inner Circle is more than just getting newspapers to start reader callouts and do more alternative story formats. It's about creating new forms of local content and developing websites that thrive with updates and galleries, and print products that invite readers to participate, are filled with more local faces and look out for the public's interest.
Why is this Inner Circle thing so important, anyway?
A GateHouse Media editor asked me that this week. And it's not the first time the question has come my way or the way of other GateHouse Media News & Interactive division corporate staff members since the program launched in October of 2010.
Here's what I told the editor:
• In a company as large as GateHouse, we need newspapers performing at a very base level — a minimum expectation — to be able to launch bigger initiatives, like mobile apps, metered content on the Web and other big plays, so our company and our newspapers can keep up with the ever-evolving news media environment.
• To do new cool stuff newspapers need to be able to launch and maintain what we believe are the general best practices of print and online journalism: online updates, galleries, reader involvement, community partner and public service journalism, and content differentiation.
• We believe that newspapers that can't meet the expectations of Web and News Cube — which has been proven doable for any size newspaper — can't implement new exciting initiatives that require changes to workflow and expectations. The Inner Circle program is a tool to get your newsroom ready to launch bigger stuff.
So that's the why, if you haven't heard it before or didn't fully understand the importance of the program. I also think it's important to point out what Inner Circle isn't.
• It's not a popularity contest, and it's not meant to embarrass newspapers. It’s a program designed to help newspapers improve print and Web content and at the same time learn to become more nimble, break old habits and prepare for more change in our evolving industry.
• If you aren't succeeding, it doesn't mean that you have a bad newsroom. It just means you have more work to do, changing your newsroom and getting systems into place to meet our content strategies.
With what I hope is now a full understanding of what the program is and isn't, I thought I would take some time today to address a few of the specific issues we saw that kept papers from meeting expectations in specific categories and general questions you may have about how the process of evaluating newspapers works.
How do you grade newspapers? At the conclusion of every quarter we'll request a week's worth of newspapers from one of the final weeks of that quarter. With those newspapers we ask that you fill out a form that explains where the Web and News Cube features are located in your newspaper. Once we receive those newspapers a group of News & Interactive staff members meet in our offices in Downers Grove, Ill., and using the forms that you filled out, we start the evaluation process. The individuals evaluating the newspapers look through each newspaper's website and look for updates, galleries, reader callouts and First in Print promotion. They also flip through the newspapers you provided and look for the News Cube items. Evaluators look through every page to make sure that your form matches what we're seeing.
Page 2 of 3 - How do you evaluate Web updates? We first look in the News Now section. For most newspapers we look at the News Now section, the carousel, top stories and highlights — and we look at some of those full sections inside your site — to see how many updates your newspaper is producing on a consistent basis. If, for example, your newspaper had consistent updates three of five days, we likely will look back a full week to see how consistent you were during that time period. In order for you to meet expectations in this area we have to see that you are consistent Monday through Friday over a several-week period, if it's not clear from the homepage that you are meeting expectations. It's important to point out that for a story to qualify as an update it has to have a "now" element to it. This means that if we're looking at your site on a Thursday and you have posted a story from a council meeting from the day before, we would not count that as an update. That's why scheduled content works so well for Web updates, like today's event of the day, today's sports schedule and tomorrow's weather. It's not to say that stories that go in print can't be updates, but they have to have a "today" element, meaning it's a story that you covered that day, not from the day before.
A local pastor writes a weekly column for our church page. Doesn't that count as a community partner journalism feature? While we applaud newspapers for things like church columns and guest columns, that's not what we're looking for when we're talking community partner journalism. One of the goals of community partner journalism formats is to create anchored features in the newspaper that have a consistent look, meaning your volunteer of the week should look like your health care person of the week. Following an alternative format for these features creates content that's easier for a reader to read, compared to a 15-inch narrative on that person.
What happens if my newspaper is really close to being certified but we had callouts three of the seven days of the week in our print newspaper? We expect newspapers to have callouts every day. If a newspaper is only missing reader callouts, we will contact the newspaper and ask if since the time they submitted their papers, they have done callouts every day. If they have, we'll request that the paper send us PDFs showing that they have successfully produced the callouts daily. Our goal is to get newspapers certified, and we'll work with you to get certified, but we expect that you hit the expectations we have laid out.
Page 3 of 3 - Who are the evaluators? There are four people who do the evaluations, and they are familiar with your newspaper based on training they did in the last year or have built working relationships with your newspaper. The evaluators are Chris Biondi, manager of newsroom development; Jean Hodges, manager of content development; Sarah Corbitt, manager of content development; and me.
What if we disagree with our scores? Once the score cards are sent out you have the opportunity to contest the scores. Due to the sheer scale of this project, there may be times when a newspaper's scores are incorrect. We keep the newspapers that you sent in for the evaluation, and we'll refer to those for the areas that you may be contesting. If a score is wrong, we'll send you a new score card.
When will the score cards come out? About a month after the quarter wraps up, so around early May for the first-quarter evaluation, we'll make an announcement about the papers that were certified for that quarter, and that week we'll also send each newspaper their score cards.
As soon as the score cards come out, our content experts start working with newspapers to help those that were close to being certified in the last quarter to get those final pieces in place for certification in the next quarter.
Inner Circle is more than just getting newspapers to start reader callouts and do more alternative story formats. It's about creating new forms of local content and developing websites that thrive with updates and galleries, and print products that invite readers to participate, are filled with more local faces and look out for the public's interest. Those are all things I think newsrooms believe in and can support.
David Arkin is the executive director of the News & Interactive Division for GateHouse Media. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org