Word To The Wise – By Chad Williamson


A week of firsts at the Journal-Tribune
I have worked at this newspaper for 28 years and last week produced two “firsts” for me in terms of the business.
The severe weather that closed out the week not only canceled school for three days, but also had us scrambling at the Journal-Tribune as we tried to figure out how to handle the challenging conditions.
On Wednesday and Thursday bitterly low wind chills proved to be the real danger. But then on Friday, the area got socked with more than five inches of snow, which was considerably more than predicted.
We struggled with how to disseminate the news through the bad weather. In fact on Thursday we had a three hour meeting among department heads, looking at how to better make printing decisions during unsafe conditions.
The conflict in making print decisions develops because each department identifies with a different end user. The newsroom is focused getting the news of the day out to the subscribers. The advertising department must ensure that businesses paying for space have their services showcased to a wide audience. And our circulation department has to look out for the safety our young carriers and motor route drivers.
In the past, many weather related problems were handled simply by moving up our morning deadline, from 10:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. This allowed the paper to be printed earlier, which in turn provided carriers more time to complete routes safely.
But in the case of Wednesday and Thursday, the low temperatures weren’t going to change and would be dangerous to our carriers regardless of how much time they had to make deliveries. Also, our motor route contractors spend most of their time driving with their windows down which would have been hazardous.
On Wednesday we made the decision to print the newspaper earlier and allow delivery personnel to make their rounds if they felt they were able. If they could not make their rounds, the papers were to be delivered on the next day.
What we found was, most newspapers did not reach doorsteps on Wednesday.
Thursday’s temperatures were not looking much better, so we were faced with a decision. If we printed a newspaper on Thursday, there was a chance that it would again not reach readers.
We were faced with the very real possibility that carriers would be delivering three newspapers on Friday. In the case of some of our youngsters who deliver city routes, the sheer weight of carrying that many papers in their bags would have been beyond their abilities.
This led to the initial “first” – the first time I can remember the Journal-Tribune not printing because of weather. We did not produce an edition last Thursday. Since I have been here, we have published late and printed copies that never made it to doorsteps, but I can never remember a skipped day of publication.
The skipped day of publication also came with some other unintended headaches, as things scheduled to run Thursday had to be pushed back into Friday’s edition. This includes news and advertising. Readers may not have noticed this hiccup, except that our Off The Hook column was inadvertently placed on two different pages because of all the scrambling around.
So the week was a mess, and we aren’t even to Friday’s snowfall. That weather event essentially started the whole process over again.
We printed last Friday despite the snow, but a lot of papers did not get to readers and we were uncertain what the conditions Saturday would be.
This is when we had another “first” – our first-ever electronic-only edition.
During our staff meeting earlier in the week we kicked around the idea of only producing our E-edition, which people read on their computers and smart phones. We realized that when the weather is bad, we are still able to create the paper, but distributing it to customers was where the breakdown occurs. We reasoned that if readers were given some notice, we could make the electronic edition available, even if we weren’t going to be able to deliver a hard copy on newsprint.
We tried to alert readers that the Saturday paper would only be available electronically. We’re still not certain if the experiment was appreciated by our customers or viewed as a cop-out. We felt it was the only way to guarantee the availability of a product for Saturday. We’re still trying to figure out if we will ever make such a move again.
New technology always offers fresh opportunities, but those new options may not always be the best. You can see that in the way people view the prospect of self-driving cars – with both fear and hope. It will take a lot of testing before people feel comfortable with such technologies turned loose on roadways.
In much the same way, the Journal-Tribune is trying to figure out the best ways to use our digital products. For some they offer convenience. To others they produce only eye-strain. We hope to continue test driving various digital options and welcome feedback from our readers.
-Chad Williamson is the managing editor at the Journal-Tribune.

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