One week. That’s how long the Tampa Tribune’s one-section weekday paper experiment lasted. The new look debuted this Monday, and the newspaper announced on Thursday that it is going back to a more traditional multi-section format starting next Monday.
I haven’t picked up the new format, I don’t live in Tampa, and I don’t know the area or its people, so I’m not going to wax on about something I know nothing about by trying to critique the one-section format. Instead, I just wanted to make one observation.
First, a comment from Tampa Tribune executive editor Janet Coats in announcing the return to multiple sections, via The Feed:
It was a noble experiment, but we’re going to back up a step,” said Tribune executive editor Janet Coats. “People want sports in a separate section…they want to be able to hand sections around. Turns out, we had really disrupted the way people communicate with each other in the morning.
Now, a previous comment from Coats in announcing the launch of the one-section format, via the Tampa Bay Business Journal:
The new Monday through Friday Trib reflects what you’ve told us about what you want in a daily newspaper,” said executive editor and vice president Janet Coats in a letter to readers in Monday’s paper. “The result is a section that provides a more colorful, lively look at the day’s news in a format that respects your time.
I want to know what kind of audience research, if any was really conducted, led to the decision to go to a one-section format. Yes, surveys can be unreliable, and people often say one thing but really mean another. But when a change ellicits 3,000 complaint calls and 300 subscription cancellations in the span of about three days, one has to wonder if there weren’t warning signs along the way. And if the research really did indicate an audience affinity for such a format, then that calls into question the method by which the research was conducted.
Or, let’s say the research is sound and the newspaper really does believe that a one-section format is the way to go, then how is three days enough time to tell whether it is the right decision? Surely they must have expected negative reactions, and considering how drastic a change this is, they should have expected that reaction to be proportionally stronger than what a run-of-the-mill redesign would draw. If it’s an issue of trying to appeal to a younger audience but alienating your core of older readers in the process, that’s something that doesn’t take a genius to foresee and plan for accordingly. If you knew that you won’t have the wherewithal to stand by your new product for a little longer than three days, if you knew that you won’t be able to stand up to your core readers and tell them you are doing this because that’s what your future readers want, then perhaps you shouldn’t have made this product at all. If you believe it is the right solution in the long run, then you must be willing and able to absorb short-term losses and give the experiment a chance to bear fruits. If your operations aren’t set up to withstand those short-term losses, then you didn’t plan your strategy for this product very well.
Look, I’m not busting the Tribune’s chops for experimenting. They should be commended for that. I’m criticizing them for seemingly not doing good enough research to guide their experiments. Whatever research they did in this case, it obviously failed to reflect what the paper’s audience really wanted. And if the paper’s brass really do believe in the validity of their research, then they should be criticized for not standing by their product through the initial negative reactions. Whatever the cause for the negative reception, the end result is a waste of time and resources — first in producing a product the paper’s audience seemingly despises, and now in un-making that product — not to mention a PR disaster with your readers.