In mid-2006 Michael Vivio, a veteran newspaper advertising executive, had been publisher of the Waco Tribune-Herald for almost a year, and he was perplexed.
His Texas newspaper, like most dailies, had been hemorrhaging circulation steadily for years. It was selling about 38,000 copies on weekdays and 45,000 on Sunday, and his circulation director had just told him the Cox-owned paper was losing $100,000 a year because of declining street sales. Later, while walking in another city, he glanced at a set of news racks, and found himself asking, "If you had to live or die by what was sold from this news rack, what kind of paper would you make?"
That's when it hit him: The front page should be dominated by an attractive display of the most compelling story of the day, no matter where that story took place.
After conferring with the paper's top editors, he found them willing to give it a try. Thus began a transformation of the Tribune-Herald, an end to its circulation losses and a rethinking of just about everything else the newspaper was doing.
The change to the front page began in September 2006, but only in the edition sold on the street. The impact was immediate. Instead of trailing year-earlier street sales by 7 percent to 8 percent, the numbers almost immediately rose by 7 percent, a startling improvement that has continued.
It soon proved unwieldy to create two editions, one for street sales with the new front-page format and the other for home-delivery containing the usual array of stories. So in a month the new look was applied to all copies.
Although the revamped front page did not have a dramatic effect on home-delivery volume, it did appear to reduce churn — the number of subscriptions canceled that require heavy promotion to replace. With the boost from street sales, total circulation has stabilized — an achievement that few newspapers can claim in this era of falling numbers.
Devoting the bulk of the front page to one story may smack of tabloidism to some, bringing to mind screaming headlines about the latest blood and gore. The reality at the Tribune-Herald is vastly different. On the day I visited the paper, the top front-page story, headlined "A Powerful Possibility," was an attractively presented combination of photographs and text that explained how Jewett, a town of 1,000 50 miles east of Waco, had become one of four national finalists to be the site of a state-of-the-art coal-gasification power plant.
The story contained vignettes of locals, comments from boosters and critics of the project and an illustration on the jump of the geological formation beneath the plant showing how the process is supposed to work. In all, a solid piece of local journalism.
Top stories on earlier days included a report on an investigation of questionable use of credit cards by local school officials; an examination of how the state's new fitness law for schoolchildren was playing out in the area; and an account of how three local families performed in a two-month "energy diet" devised by the newspaper to encourage lower use of electricity, gasoline and natural gas.
The story deemed most compelling typically takes up about three-quarters of the front page, leaving room at the bottom for one or two other stories, which can be local, national or international, and an index to what lies inside as well as a box or two promoting inside stories. The left column features detailed references to stories in various sections.
The Tribune-Herald had other problems besides circulation, notably an expected loss of $700,000 in advertising. Spurred by the success of the format change, the paper began to reassess its advertising strategy as well. A new glossy niche publication, Dwelling, was started last February and has been bringing in up to $29,000 in editions published every other month. Last July brought a Spanish-language weekly, Frontera (Spanish for border), to target Waco's growing Hispanic population; it's expected to generate at least $128,000 a year. An existing monthly magazine, Waco Today, was switched from newsprint to glossy paper, which immediately increased advertising by more than 40 percent.
Perhaps the most concentrated effort was upgrading the newspaper's Web presence. In addition to the usual stories, the site features slideshows and video presentations by staff photographers and freelancers of community events. "If there's a gathering of 100 people anywhere in Waco, we have a photographer there," says Vivio.
Since the paper enhanced its Web offerings, page views have more than doubled to 10.3 million a month and unique local visitors rose to 74,000 in September from the previous September's 44,000; online advertising revenue is running 53 percent above year-earlier numbers.
Many newspapers these days are launching new initiatives as they struggle to prosper in a challenging, fast-evolving media landscape. Given all of the gloom and doom out there, it's refreshing to encounter the Waco Herald-Tribune's promising forays.