Detroit’s big news as seen from a key design insider

UPDATED: More questions answered in the third section.

It’s official: The Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News, will become the first major U.S. newspapers to curtail seven-day home delivery. The news was announced by the Detroit Media Partnership, the agency controlling the interests of both the Gannett and Media News papers, at a press conference this morning in the Motor City.

The confirmation comes after several days of speculation, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, about a fundamental change in the business model for the struggling Free Press and News. The papers work together in all matters other than editorial under a Joint Operating Agreement. The change is expected to happen in the first quarter of 2009.

The highlights of the plan:

Goodbye to every day delivery: Both papers will cease seven-day home delivery to all subscribers as they begin transitioning to more online delivery of news.

Hello to three-day delivery: The JOA will instead focus on Thursday and Friday delivery of both papers and Sunday delivery of the Free Press only. Those days are the most lucrative for advertising and have often been considered in the newspaper world as the “money” days for both sales and circulation.

Get it on the newsstand: The papers will offer single copy editions six days of the week; only the Free Press will publish a Sunday single copy edition.

A new pricing model for subscriptions and a push to online: Sevens days of access to an e-edition would also include the three days of home delivery.

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The design and implentation

We talked to Steve Dorsey, the deputy managing editor for presentation and innovation at the Free Press, about the changes. Dorsey, the Society’s incoming Secretary-Treasurer, has been involved with the plan and aspects of its implementation for months.

Dorsey has been working closely with IDEO, the Silicon Valley design firm, on transforming the way the newspaper approaches serving its audience. IDEO has worked with companies around the world and has been profiled widely in the business press, ranking as No. 5 on Fast Company’s list of the World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies.

It’s not Dorsey’s first experience with the company. The Free Press worked with IDEO during the end of the paper’s Knight Ridder ownership.

In a bold plan, Carole Leigh Hutton, then publisher and editor of the Free Press, asked her newsroom to help solve the challenges facing Detroit.

A small team began working on audience observation and rapid prototyping of a new newspaper in 2005. Hutton and her team presented a radical reinvention of the Free Press to Knight Ridder that involved fewer sections and a wildly innovative new design. Plans were shelved before implementation, though, because Knight Ridder sold the Free Press to Gannett.

The new ideas in Detroit unveiled today begin to take that earlier work to a new level.

“We knew how they (IDEO) would bring design thinking into the prototyping process,” Dorsey said in an email interview this morning. “This time, there was a longer investment and a deeper cross-divisional involvement that led to a greater commitment to IDEO’s process and philosophy of human centered design. Ultimately, this is transforming the overall way we’re approaching change at all levels of the Free Press and in the Partnership. This will extend far beyond today’s news.”

Some critics have panned the process with IDEO, worrying that the design firm does not completely understand how to work with the news media.

The influential designer Juan Antonio Giner of Innovation called it “the way to death” in a posting last week, and the Gannett Blog has been buzzing with rumors about IDEO’s role.

But the leaders of the transformation defend the IDEO process.

“IDEO challenged some of the assumptions the media industry makes about how people want and desire news,” said Dave Hunke, CEO of the Detroit Media Partnership and Publisher of the Free Press. “We spoke to and observed a broad spectrum of people in their homes, at their places of work and in everyday settings and this guided the development of new offerings that will have a positive impact on southeastern Michigan.”

So, what does it all mean?

We asked Dorsey some questions that seem to be on a lot of people’s minds …

SND: Will there be layoffs?

Dorsey: We’re told there will not be newsroom layoffs at this time, but unfortunately there will be other layoffs across the company. (The changes will lead to a reduction of about 9 percent of the Detroit Media Partnership work force, now around 2,100 people, according to published reports.)

SND: What will the single copy papers look like? Can we see prototypes?

Dorsey: No, not yet. There have been many different versions experimented and tested with but none are ready to show. More will be tested before they are available. Sorry.

SND: Fair enough. Have you explored how the paper will be sectioned in your prototypes?

Dorsey: Yes, early prototypes have focused heavily on form factors, exploring what readers of all demographic ranges seek most when they turn to information sources. Beyond format, this also includes questions of sectioning and scale — how much or how little of a particular topic or feature is enough on certain days of the week, and so on. We’re still evaluating early studies and conducting additional research as we fine tune plans.

SND: Who are you testing these prototypes with?

Dorsey: We’ve done extensive research in the market for months now, talking at length with a wide ranging collection of readers and non-readers that’s geographically, racially and in all other ways demographically diverse. We’ve been gathering reactions and observations from these subjects even before we built the first prototype. We’re also reviewing ideas with them. This is a very local and people-driven process.

SND: Will there more content on the site now that it becomes a bigger part of the distribution model? Does this mean there will be a premium content part of the site only for subscribers?

Dorsey: Yes. Part of the new subscription model will be inclusion of the seven-day e-edition. Additionally there are a number of recently new features on Freep.com and many more are planned for the near term.

SND: What about mobile delivery? Is that part of the strategy moving ahead?

Dorsey: It will have to be. Additionally, we’ll have to look at ways to maximize reader connections through all existing and newly developing channels (ex: Kindle, iPhone, etc and whatever comes next). That is definitely part of our planning.

SND: What are the design challenges associated with this kind of change?

Dorsey: There are many – even more than the regular daily paper poses, I would argue. Our new process also takes advertising into account in new ways and tries to consider the overall experience of both reader and advertiser. Clearly one of the biggest design challenges is to try to continue serving current single copy readers and perhaps even improve their experiences, while also appealing to long-time home delivery customers and trying to serve their needs.

SND: Why is Gannett experimenting with this type of plan in Detroit? It seems like too large a market to test in and it’s complicated by the JOA, so why start here?

Dorsey: A critical distinction should be made to note that this plan was conceived by the Free Press and the Detroit Media Partnership, not Gannett. Free Press Editor Paul Anger even said it to the newsroom in so many words earlier today: “This was not dictated to us or suggested in any way. This was a plan by the Detroit Newspaper Partnership.” He also acknowledged that Gannett was “very interested” (when they heard about the plans) and they’ve been quite supportive.

SND: It seems like the Detroit Media Partnership is announcing only part of a plan. Why can’t you show what these papers and Web features would look like yet? Why isn’t this completely “done” yet?

Dorsey: The answer is complex, but integral to our new philosophy. We’re still testing and experimenting with the best way to fit into this new delivery framework for readers of all kinds. We’re gearing up for a debut in the first quarter of 2009, but we plan to keep changing right up to the debut – and beyond, really. One of the key things IDEO helped us realize to a greater understanding in 2005, and again more recently, is that each day of a newspaper can and should be considered a daily or even hourly prototype. We’re trying to find ways to embed this new kind of thinking in our approach to all the changes ahead – both in our physical construction and our internal processes. So the short answer is: If we stick to this new philosophy, we won’t really EVER be done.

SND: That “we’re always prototyping” concept is new to news organizations: How do you hope to train the staff in seeing that constantly inventing is the way to stay ahead?

Dorsey: To me, this is the most exciting aspect of our current plans. It represents a complete change in approach and overall philosophy and perhaps most interestingly to some – and frighteningly to others – allows, and in fact breeds, an environment where “failure” is a good thing, because as soon as you find something that doesn’t work, you can learn from it and change. And repeat. And ideally grow a new solution to fill unmet consumer needs. The alternative is the traditional model newspapers have followed for decades where we hammer out something solid and safe and ride it for years. And frankly, it’s a large contributing factor to how we as an industry have fallen so far out of sync with readers’ lives and daily needs, and out of step with technology.

This kind of thinking empowers a newsroom to try new, different and exciting potential solutions. It’s the kind of environment the Apple’s and the Nike’s establish that seeps into everything they do or touch.


Resources

The Detroit Free Press’ coverage of the news

The Detroit News’ coverage of the news

The Free Press “transformation” site


Matt Mansfield is the vice president of the Society for News Design and an associate professor for the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.