Sunday, September 22, 2013

Butterfly | 80% of Fort Myers' new pages for USAT; Florida paper is third to outline role in a pilot test

That's according to a Page One note to readers this morning, where Publisher Mei-Mei Chan offered fresh details about how The News-Press will be revamped starting Oct. 7 as one of four test sites for the big new Butterfly Project across the community newspaper division.

Chan said the Florida paper will add 70 pages a week, including a daily eight-page standalone USA Today news section, a major focus of the Butterfly experiment.

Chan is the first publisher to reveal the size of the USAT section. That detail wasn't included in stories last week about the project's launch at two of the other test sites: The Indianapolis Star and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in New York.

As I post this, the fourth site, The Post-Crescent in Appleton, Wisc., still hasn't told readers about the changes in store even after the paper was first identified as a pilot site three days ago. (The paper is leading with a story and video about the appearance of a live chicken during a handgun control event downtown.) In a memo, staff was told the paper would gain more than 48 pages a week, including the USAT section.

Chan says the redesign will make room "for more coverage about local, regional and statewide issues."

Details still missing
But she doesn't offer any details on the type of coverage, including subject matter. She also didn't say how the additional news would be produced after the paper reportedly laid off six staffers in the newsroom in August during another round of Gannett-wide newspaper layoffs that claimed more than 400 jobs.

Gannett papers have been using more reader-generated blogs, photos and videos to fill space as managers chopped away at journalism resources. While that's free, it doesn't come near the quality of professionally-produced government watchdog and other such reporting.

In Indianapolis, Rochester and at USAT, publishers were equally vague about the subject matter and source of any local content to be added. The Star said only that it would add more than 70 pages weekly, and the Democrat and Chronicle will add around 60.

With Appleton adding at least 48 a week, the four papers would be adding a combined 13,000 pages a year -- a lot of costly newsprint when Corporate has recently been cutting back. Newsprint vies with labor costs as the company's biggest operational expense. In the second quarter, CFO Victoria Harker told Wall Street analysts newsprint consumption fell 15%.

Harker and CEO Gracia Martore will likely face many questions when they release the third-quarter earnings report in about three weeks. What's the Butterfly business model? How much advertising, including especially national, will it generate?

And is there another, parallel double-digit subscription rate increase in the works? Will it be a tiered model, where prices for the same delivery frequency will be set higher or lower according to data on average Zip Code household income? (You're seeing that possibility mentioned here for the first time.)

Publisher Chan's note on the bottom of Page One this morning.

Fort Myers incubator
Readers seldom like abrupt change. In Fort Myers, very early reaction was limited to just three comments -- all unhappy.

Mike Myers, who didn't provide his residence, wrote in a comment on Chan's note: "You've learned to spell in recent months; I'll give you that. But your content is lacking. Let's see how you improve on that."

Ken Franklin of Cape Coral agreed: "Along with what Mike Myers said, you should hire a competent copy editor to deal with frequent typos, grammatical errors, and other gaffes. And more staff photographers so you don't have to run file photos with important stories."

Corporate hasn't said how it chose the four test sites, which represent markets in the Northeast, South and Midwest, but not western states such as California.

But Fort Myers was an incubator for an earlier Gannett initiative that tested using mobile journalists who reported with smartphones, video cameras and other contemporary tech tools seven years ago. The paper's editor, Kate Marymont, later was promoted to editorial director for the entire 81-title community newspaper division.

Whatever the selection process, Butterfly adds even more pressure on the publishers and staff at the four papers to prove why the initiative shouldn't proceed to a wider rollout. Corporate has been considering Butterfly since at least summer 2012.

If the tests are successful, the USAT section would be added to about three dozen of Gannett's other biggest papers, according to my readers. Those dailies have combined circulation of more than 2.3 million on weekdays and more than 3.5 million Sundays. In total, Gannett publishes 82 newspapers and owns 23 TV stations, making it one of the world's biggest news groups.

An historic project
Weekday circulation at Fort Myers is 66,385, and Sunday is 91,150, according to the March 31 AAM report. (Find your site's circulation.)

Butterfly would be one of the biggest new initiatives in Gannett's recent history. But it's a risky bet on print's future amid declining circulation and advertising.

For USAT, Butterfly could help Gannett's struggling flagship recover hundreds of thousands in circulation volume that's likely to be lost when it doubles the single-copy price to $2 on Sept. 30. The paper has forecast a 35% plunge in newsstand sales and the near total disappearance of vending machine sales after the price hike, according to an internal company document.

It's unclear whether USAT will try to count the new daily section as paid circulation in its AAM reports. Rochester Publisher Michael Kane hinted at the possibility in his column last week: "We will effectively publish a national newspaper inside the D&C."

Earlier: Here's the Butterfly Project at a glance.

Related: spreadsheet shows circulation of 81 U.S. community papers 2005-2012.


  1. Every time I read the name of this project, my skin crawls. It hits home.

    Don't they do research before they name anything?

    Google "butterfly Project" - see what you come up with.

  2. I know: a most unfortunate choice, given this.

  3. A key question is whether GCI will try to get other newspaper companies to carry this abridged USAT section. That would seem crucial for getting national ad dollars, since Gannett's patchwork of miscellaneous metros (Phoenix market size 13, Cincy No. 28, Indy No. 33) can't deliver the major-metro coverage that national advertisers would demand. For this to work, presence in LA, NY, Chicago, and a few other big metros seems mandatory.

    1. You actually raise a great question. Say you are a non Gannett paper that wants to get rid of AP. Especially one thst is already picking up printing for a Gannett local paper. Do you save the cost of a wire service and cut a deal for Usa Today content?

  4. Lots of questions at my site (not one of the pilots) about how this will affect local content. Some of the proposed USAT weekend section content announced in Indy duplicates some things my site already runs. Concerns all around about whether we'll stop running our "local" content, whether we'll still have the newshole earmarked for that, and if so, how we fill it. Also, questions for Fort Myers: what's going in those extra 14 pages? (70 more pages a week-56 USAT pages--8 per day, 7 days a week leaves 14). And who will bear the cost of the USAT section--the site or USAT? Who's under pressure to sell the ads for that section?

    1. Sunday will carry more pages than week days. Sunday will feature the best of Lifestyles including book reviews, puzzles and travel. There are also USAT sports pages to appear within the local sports section. Advertising is not being sold by the local markets for the USAT section - If the national sales team fails to sell it I am sure the pressure will shift to the local market.

  5. Will local subscription rates be going up another 25% due to this?


  6. Will local subscription rates be going up another 25% due to this?

  7. Probably. Lets squeeze what we can out of the old folks in Florida that subscribe to the Ft. Myers paper.


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