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Strib’s suburban coverage: another change

Just months after a ballyhooed shift to suburban coverage, the Strib is shifting back.

Bestill your beating hearts, haters of small-bore copy — the paper of record is not abandoning its journey to the outer rings. Rather, as of Feb. 6, it will kill those silly-looking four-page “secondary” Metro sections that include the random prep sports profile and some other cuddly tale of nobility. These features and similar non-timely main-Metro ones will be folded into a new Wednesday section.

Pending return calls from management, the bottom line appears to be: same stuff, different package. (Or, as one Strib wag quipped, “old stuff, old package,” since the Strib’s pre-ballyhoo suburban effort was a weekly section.) Still, it’s better to segregate the softest stuff in a section I can ignore once a week, and as a bonus, wringing out some of the daily drip-drip-drip of un-urgent Metro section copy. The suburban strategy’s good things — for example, local-level environmental stories that knit together the metro ecosystem — should remain in the main Metro.

Readers, as it turns out, weren’t the ones prompting the change. According to a staff memo from Editor Nancy Barnes, “the secondary sections were designed primarily as a vehicle for advertising, and we have a concluded that a richer section one day a week has more appeal to advertisers.”

Denny Hecker, we salute you!

Newsroom wags — and there are always newsroom wags — wonder aloud if the change might signal something more fundamental: a retrenchment of the suburban strategy. Management has kept its options open by putting its newest suburban reporters on extended probation (three 90-day periods, compared to the typical one 90-day period) — all the better to cut them loose if something changes. There’s no evidence to support that yet, though in her memo, Barnes also mentions a “difficult economic year” with budget cuts, “including overtime, subscriptions and other costs that don’t necessarily affect the journalism that we produce.”

Extended memo excerpts are below:

From Editor Nancy Barnes:

Zoning: Starting in February, we plan to shift our approach to zoning. We will still zone news five days a week in the paper, and we will retain some zoned content on Sunday. However, the bulk of the feature zoned content will be packaged into one larger section that will appear on Wednesday rather than spread throughout the week, much the way the old weeklies were delivered. The secondary sections were designed primarily as a vehicle for advertising, and we have concluded that a richer section one day a week has more appeal to advertisers. However, we remain committed to giving more people more local content and advertising throughout the week so the daily zones will stay in place. We are still working on what this will look like in the newsroom; stay tuned for more information. Nobody should read anything into this change other than that we are making adjustments as we go along.

Budget issues: I have been working with newsroom managers to cut expenses in the newsroom, including overtime, subscriptions, and other costs that don’t necessarily affect the journalism we produce. We may be adjusting some schedules to limit overtime when possible. I’m asking for your understanding in advance. We need to be vigilant about costs as we head into a difficult economic year.

From Deputy Managing Editor, Visuals and Presentation Cory Powell:

Beginning the week of Feb. 4, we’re making some adjustments to the company zoning strategy. First, we’ll consolidate much of the zone material that we produce in advance for the B and AA sections into one weekly section per zone, which will publish on Wednesdays. The first one will be in the paper of Feb. 6. We’ll also give readers a substantial zoned package in Sunday’s B section and keep the capability to zone for daily news.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll work quickly to adjust our processes. Many questions remain to be answered, though we do know quite a bit already:

* The Wednesday sections will include news and prep sports content. The preps content and editing will continue to be provided by the Sports staff.

* Design and editing for the sections will begin on the preceding Thursday. Some of this work will be done over the weekend.

* The sections will wrap up Monday evening and print Tuesday morning.

* London Nelson, who helped launch the West and North sections, will help coordinate planning and art direction for the new sections for the launch and through the first few months.

* Each section will have between 4.5 and 6 pages of content.

* There will continue to be zoned space in the daily B section, but we’ll use a mixture of full-run and zone-specific content to fill it.

* Our nightly deadlines will remain as they are now, though adjustments may be made once we see the impact of the changes.

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