When considering major changes to the Columbus Dispatch, editors and executives found an unlikely source of inspiration: the kitchen table.
On January 28, the Dispatch debuted a smaller and more compact format for the newspaper. Before making the move, the paper conducted extensive research, convening focus groups and testing out three prototypes.
"One of the comments we heard most from readers [about the winning version] was that they could read the paper and still see their spouse across the kitchen table," says Benjamin J. Marrison, editor of the Dispatch.
Phil Pikelny, chief marketing officer and vice President of Dispatch Digital, says the smaller Dispatch makes readers feel less awkward. They "just feel better... They can see each other, talk to each other," he says. "It's rude to be sitting and reading and ignoring the person you're sitting with."
The Dispatch, first printed in 1871, is the first newspaper in the United States to adopt the New Broadsheet format. While it's considerably smaller than the "old" Dispatch," executives stress that it's not a tabloid, as some have described it. Like a broadsheet, it has individual sections. In fact, the new Dispatch includes two new sections, Business and Nation & World, for a total of six, and color on nearly every page. The price, $1 daily and $2 on Sunday, remains the same.
Despite being "shorter" (Pikelny recoils at the "smaller" label), the Dispatch includes the same number of stories as its broadsheet predecessor, giving readers a thicker paper.
The family owned Dispatch was approached by Gannett several years back about the possibility of the Columbus paper and Gannett's Cincinnati Enquirer both adopting "three-around" technology, which makes it possible to print three pages at a time instead of two. (The two cities are about 100 miles apart.) The technology, developed by Pressline Services, makes it possible to print 50 percent faster. The Enquirer needed a partner because its presses weren't ideal for the new technology.
Dispatch executives were intrigued. "We needed to be more contemporary, and we absolutely believe that there is a future for newspaper," Pikelny says. "We scratch our heads when newspapers go down to fewer delivery days a week."
Under the new arrangement, 100,000 copies of the Dispatch hurtle off the presses every hour (the paper's circulation is about 230,000). And starting in March, the Dispatch will be printing the Enquirer in the New Broadsheet format.
While newspapers often shrink the size of their product to save money by reducing newsprint expenses, that wasn't the goal in this case, Dispatch executives say. It's essentially a wash because while the pages are smaller in the new incarnation, there are more of them.
Editor Marrison is very enthusiastic about the new format. "It has all the benefits of a broadsheet, but is fully sectioned, which is so critical, and easy to carry around," he says. When it's folded in half, the paper is roughly the size of an iPad.
The Dispatch is now 17 ¾" tall and 11" wide, as opposed to its previous dimensions of 29 ½" by 11 ½".
Media analyst Ken Doctor thinks the new format makes sense for the Dispatch and the Enquirer. "I believe it's a good thing," he says. Despite the exodus of print readers to computers, tablets and mobile devices, about 75 to 80 percent of newspaper revenue still comes from print, he points out. That means it remains important to focus on the print reading experience.
"If [papers] depend upon reader revenue, they have to do things like improve all the products," he says. "Readers want updated products."
Print remains a preference for many readers, especially those who didn't come of age with digital media, according to Doctor. He believes we are in the "swivel chair age," still caught somewhere between clinging on to print, reading news on the computer and transitioning to the tablet era.
On the day the New Broadsheet launched, the Dispatch received 715 calls about the new format, 405 of them positive, Pikelny says. The 310 negative calls, he adds, focused mainly on what he calls "fixable" problems. One reader felt the obituary typeface was too small, while another disapproved of the crossword puzzle answers being on the same page as the puzzle itself. Still, about 100 people "just didn't like it."
About 50 people cancelled their subscriptions that first day. Two days later, the cancellations had dropped into the teens. "We believe they were making a statement," Pikelny says. "We believe they will be back."
But here's the good news: the Dispatch picked up 1,200 new subscribers that first week, a record number. A quarter of those people were "voluntary starts," meaning they had not been solicited by the Dispatch. Last week, single-copy sales of the paper were up 13 percent from the previous year, according to Pikelny.
Marrison likes the fact that the new format allows the paper to better showcase both editorial and advertising content. Because the pages are so much smaller, there is much more opportunity for either stories or ads to stand alone.
The editor also used the reconfiguration as an opportunity to better display international news. Columbus is home to Ohio State University, and its readership has a hunger for news of the world. But, Marrison adds, "We were not getting enough credit for the national and international content we produced." The new Nation & World section should eliminate that problem.
Other changes include the five "news elements" on the front page – two stories and three summaries, rather than five stories as in the past – and more vertical photographs.
And so now the Dispatch finds itself in the position of trailblazer.
Says Rick Edmonds, who studies the economics of the news business for the Poynter Institute, "It looks pretty radically different for an American newspaper."