Disruption in the Desert  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December 2006/January 2007

Disruption in the Desert   

Innovation is in full bloom at the Desert Sun.

By Scott Shewfelt
Scott Shewfelt (sshewfelt@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     

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   » Editors AJR can't envision wearing a brain hat

The Desert Sun in Palm Springs, California, is a much different place than it was eight months ago. The staff top to bottom has embraced a creative approach to changing the way the paper does business, one that involves heavy doses of Internet and video training, a lot of brainstorming and the use of a cardboard brain hat.

The catchphrase for what is happening at the Desert Sun is "disruptive innovation." Think troublemaker, upstart, rabble-rouser. The idea is to preserve the paper's journalistic mission while coming up with inventive ways of reaching a wider audience.

To achieve this goal, the Desert Sun has made changes at a breakneck pace. Most of them are business strategies, such as new distribution plans for two specialty publications, the bilingual Viva Monthly and the Business Review. Hawkers now hand out copies of Viva Monthly at local soccer games, and the Business Review caters to start-ups and small businesses intent on growth.

In addition, advertising representatives are spending much more time interacting with clients, and the paper will soon launch FoodPsycho.com, which will offer free online restaurant ads and coupons. To access the coupons, readers will have to fill out a registration form; customers will receive direct marketing material, likely via e-mail; and the Sun will get a revenue stream from the companies doing the direct marketing. "It is a real triple play: new consumers, new businesses and new revenue sources," says Scott Anthony, managing director of Innosight, a business consulting firm that worked with the Sun.

Another Web site initiative is an expanded array of photo galleries, including myriad back-to-school offerings and a series of snapshots from prom night at local high schools. Another gallery is called One Night Stands, and it features mostly posed pictures of blissful young people in bars. The informal images of friends and strangers carousing in Palm Springs has turned out to be one of the site's most popular photo features, says Executive Editor Steve Silberman.

Much of what the Desert Sun is doing involves online content, which means the paper has begun to alter its hiring practices. Silberman says he's now looking for more tech-savvy people. "The changing expectations," he says, "means the people hired need to be different... Clips become a little less important" and digital media experience becomes much more critical. Recent hires include the paper's assistant digital editor, who has a background in television, and a page designer with no newspaper experience. The designer, who recently created an interactive jack-o'-lantern feature for the Web, has a background in advertising.

While many of the new ideas are taking place in marketing and circulation, changes of the disruptive and innovative variety also are transforming how reporters and editors cover everything from golf tournaments to wildfires. Most reporters carry digital cameras and are asked to shoot video of their stories for the Web. In addition, Silberman has reduced the number of jumps, so reporters now write shorter stories, and they're updating those stories throughout the day, much the way a wire service would, for online viewers.

"Our thinking has changed," Silberman says. "We now have different standards. We're now always on deadline, and we want to get even faster."

The transformation underway at the Sun is partly the result of an American Press Institute project known as Newspaper Next. Aimed at helping newspapers adapt to current market trends, the yearlong effort involves extensive training for employees at seven daily newspapers ranging in size from the Dallas Morning News, with a circulation of nearly 500,000, to the Sun, a Gannett paper with a circulation of about 50,000.

Newspaper Next is closely tied to Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, who coined the term "disruptive innovation." Executives from his consulting firm, Innosight, were involved in training sessions, and they monitored the progress of each newspaper during a four-month period from June through September. "Those with senior management onboard from the beginning went the farthest the fastest," says Anthony, who praised Silberman and Sun Publisher Michelle Krans for having a "great capacity for change. We set them on course, and they just ran with it. They only needed light consultation and guidance."

One of the underlying principles of Newspaper Next is speed, and it's one that Silberman has embraced with abandon: "Go fast, and go faster than you think you can," he said at a September 27 API conference in suburban Washington, D.C., touting Newspaper Next. "Speed can be an intoxicant." In practice, that means launching a good idea as quickly as possible, dispensing with delays caused by too much fine-tuning, and working out the kinks once it's up and running. Another key principle is creative thinking. Anything that's different, counterintuitive or rattles the status quo is encouraged, even if it takes the form of a goofy cardboard hat that looks like a brain.

The brain hat was a mascot of sorts for the Big Brain Panel. Formed shortly after Newspaper Next first started working with the Sun in April, the panel was made up of staff members from different departments who asked employees to submit ideas they believed would help the company reach a larger audience. The panel evaluated the ideas with an eye for the most radical and the easiest to implement and then summoned selected employees to make a more extensive presentation.

While they made their presentations, the employees wore the brain hat. "It was a light and open environment," says Kris Dale, a designer for the Sun's features section, who spoke to the panel about developing a weekly e-mail newsletter covering niche topics, such as sports, housing or entertainment. "There was detailed discussion," he says. "They asked me what I wanted to see, and they asked good questions."

The Big Brain Panel hat and all was intended to kick-start a newspaper culture that would encourage and embrace innovation. And that it did. The steps taken by the Sun to foster creativity have "unleashed something powerful," Silberman says. Another catalyst was the coverage of wildfires that broke out in July in Pioneertown and the Yucca Valley area of California.

The wildfires followed training sessions and newsroom discussions about the importance of online updates and the use of video equipment. "Covering the fires was the perfect test for everything we had talked about over the past two months," says Larry Bohannan, a golf writer and columnist who was skeptical of the paper's involvement with Newspaper Next. He initially thought it was another passing fad. In his 20 years at the paper he had seen many ideas come and go, and he didn't expect this one to be any different. "If you told me two years ago I'd be out shooting golf videos twice a week," he says, "I would have looked at you cross-eyed and told you I'm not a cameraman."

Bohannan started shooting video during the wildfires when reporters and photographers were sent out with hand-held cameras to gather video for the Web. The size of the cameras allowed them to film areas that could not be reached by broadcast competitors relying on larger cameras and aerial shots. The Desert Sun was able to get "very real and raw video," says Online Director Lori Edwards, and some of it was used by CNN, ABC's "Good Morning America" and MSNBC. "Wildfire coverage," she says, "made people realize we have more than one medium, and it is important to use the Internet to reach consumers."

True to form, however, the changes have been disruptive, and they've met with some, albeit mild, resistance from employees for whom new forms of multitasking are now an essential part of their job. Presentation Editor Gladys Rios, for example, recognizes the improvements and praises a newfound sense of collaboration at the paper, but she says it's been "crazy at times, and reinventing on top of your regular duties is challenging." Designer Dale says that at times the process has seemed too fast. On the upside, however, "you learn how to multitask and you get to try new things."

Silberman acknowledges that it's more challenging to be a reporter at the Sun than it was eight months ago. "Reporting is a hard job that's gotten harder," he says. "I'm amazed at what the staffers do each day." But with each and every change, he says he asks the staff, "Do we suffer? Does the journalism suffer?" He believes the journalism has improved, and he makes no apologies for the upheaval. Part of embracing Newspaper Next, he says, was "disrupting ourselves."

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