Kate Marymont on Gannett’s transition to design studios

Kate Marymont is vice president for news of the Gannett Company.

Kate Marymont is vice president for news of the Gannett Company.

Before Gannett’s transition to a hub-based approach to design and production, Kate Marymont, the company’s vice president for news, gave an interview to SND where she talked about the transition. Three years later, we asked for a follow-up to talk about how it was going.

With virtually all of the company’s community publishing division moved into five design studios — based in Phoenix, Des Moines, Louisville, Asbury Park and Nashville — Gannett has been an industry leader in the consolidation, but it hasn’t always been the smoothest of transitions. By many accounts, the turnover within studios has been high and the average age of designers has gotten younger. Managers have increasingly recruited straight out of school to fill design positions that would have been filled by journalists with more experience before consolidation. Budget cuts which have affected Gannett newsrooms have also begun to reach the studios.

Three years ago, Marymont said she didn’t know how many design and editing jobs might be eliminated in the transition to the studios. We asked her about this and more by email. Her answers appear in full.

Steve Cavendish: How would you characterize the process of moving to the design studio system? Were there any lessons learned along the way?

Kate Marymont: Because 78 local newspapers were involved in the transition, we had to have a very detailed plan for a phased rollout. The process was meticulous and worked very well because of the energy local sites and the studios put into it. As a site prepared for the change, steps included:

  • A detailed audit of every product that designers touch.  The daily newspaper is only a small part of the design work at many sites.
  • A visit to the local newspaper by a team from its Design Studio. This was to build relationships and learn a community’s uniqueness that needs to be reflected on the pages of the newspaper. We strive to retain the flavor of each community.
  • A visit to the Design Studio by key local managers.
  • Creation of the site’s design templates in the new CMS that enabled long-distance sharing.
  • Daily communication between the site and its studio; weekly conference calls with project managers to spot problems, clear up questions.

Lessons learned? Yes, many. A few to start:

  • Building trust and respect from the beginning is essential.  The studios and the newspapers need to view themselves as partners with a shared goal of providing top quality design that reflects the local community. The few that got off to bumpy starts were slowed down in achieving those goals.
  • Efficiencies in the production of commodity information free up firepower for pages/packages that need individualized and high-quality attention.
  • Because each studio serves multiple clients, rigor in adhering to SOPs is essential.  If a newspaper early in the production cycle misses deadlines, it  affects the ability of others to meet their deadlines and have appropriate attention paid to their design.
  • A months-long rollout requires that every site get the same attention. The last ones have just as much apprehension to address, just as many workflow peculiarities to work out, just as many new relationships to build.

SC: In your original interview with SND, you said “We don’t know how many jobs might be eliminated. We are just beginning this project and a first step is to survey and analyze the work done at each site.” Now that we are three years into the process, how many jobs were eliminated in the transition to the studio system?

KM: Gannett’s policy is that we don’t provide details on personnel or staffing matters.  However, we certainly found savings as we introduced efficient ways to produce commodity information and refine workflows. We took some of those savings to build a management team at each studio to recruit and continue to train great staffs. We also are investing hours in building digital skills at the studios.

SC: It’s fair to say that some papers have benefited from the system, either through redesigns or by getting more visual attention than they previously received. What papers would you characterize as benefiting from the studio system? Are there any that have suffered?

KM: Our goal was to help most and harm none. We accomplished that. Many of our mid-sized and smaller newspapers certainly received design upgrades. None of the previously well designed newspapers regressed. Some had issues at the beginning because when they stopped doing their own design, they put less focus on creating local photos or graphics.  They quickly realized the quality of the design coming back to them depends — in part — on the quality of the art sent to the studio. We worked through that.

SC: What does the Butterfly Project — adding USA Today pages to individual newspapers — mean for the studios?

KM: USA TODAY is handling most of the design of the USA TODAY Local edition. The Design Studios will handle some inside pages and some on-deadline changes. The time studios had spent on production of wire pages for local newspapers will be used to expand design of digital products.  And a portion of the operational efficiency will be used as savings.

SC: A number of managers I have spoken with have described a higher level of turnover in the studios than was perhaps expected. How do turnover percentages in the studios compare with turnover in the newsrooms? Are the studios attracting the same type of candidates? Different types?

KM: We are very proud of our management talent and our design talent. It’s not surprising that nearly three years into the project, we would have some amount of turnover. Some designers come to a studio and discover they prefer a single newsroom environment. Others thrive in a studio environment where they have a ready group of people to share ideas. Our studios balance a creative environment with the discipline of daily deadlines. We have a wide range of people who excel in that environment.

SC: Over the last few decades, design and copy editing jobs have been an entry point for a significant portion of managers in the chain. Since they are isolated from the newsrooms, what does a career track look like for the journalists working in them?

KM: Gannett has always had a system for helping employees find their next challenge in the company. It is working for the studio employees now. A team leader at one studio recently was promoted to be a newsroom’s digital editor, showcasing her natural leadership skills and allowing her to build new digital skills. A senior studio manager is participating in a months-long development program to groom executive editors. Several designers have moved from one studio to another for advancement or because of personal lifestyle choices.