The Times Mirror Co.-owned daily decided to form marketing groups with employees from various departments within the building, including advertising and editorial.
The teams, each headed by a general manager, would be charged with rethinking, revamping and marketing particular sections. The general managers would answer to a newly appointed general manager for news.
The scheme was the brainchild of Times Publisher and Times Mirror Chairman-CEO Mark H. Willes. He hoped it would "dramatically improve" the paper's outreach to both advertisers and readers.
Mr. Willes attempted to allay any concerns from the newsroom by maintaining team leaders "will not be editing the newspaper. Editorial content is the sole responsibility of our editors, not our business executives."
Many journalistic purists both inside and outside the Times have questioned Mr. Willes' respect for editorial autonomy since he came to Times Mirror from General Mills in May 1995. His first acts were to slash the bloated news staff of the Los Angeles Times and abruptly shut down the award-winning but unprofitable New York Newsday.
Mr. Willes' plan to reinvent the Times is getting raves from other newspapers, and from observers on Wall Street, who think the industry could use a few more like him.
The value of Times Mirror stock has quadrupled since Mr. Willes' arrival.
The Times is "borrowing an organizational structure tried and tested in the consumer goods field, and one that has worked exceptionally well there," says William Bird, an analyst at Salomon Smith Barney. "There's no reason both sides of the business can't work together without compromising the integrity of the journalistic product," he adds. "It has to be done in a delicate manner, to satisfy both constituencies."
Much of the criticism hurled at Mr. Willes over the years concerns his lack of experience in newspapers. There's a perception the executive looks at marketing a newspaper much like marketing a box of breakfast cereal.
Mr. Willes and his charges have, in fact, brought in several top-level executives from outside the newspaper industry -- including the recent addition of Steven Lee, VP-consumer marketing and planning, whose former employers include Frito-Lay, Tricon Global Restaurants' Taco Bell and Procter & Gamble Co.
"It's fair to say that we can learn from other industries, but that doesn't mean the newspaper is the same as a consumer product," says Jeffrey S. Klein, the Times' senior VP-general manager for news. "There's actually a very different, very unique relationship between someone who purchases a newspaper and someone who purchases soap. But that doesn't mean some of the marketing techniques aren't the same -- they are. And we as an industry should be open to that."
Mr. Klein points to the circulation strides the Times is beginning to make, which the paper attributes to editorial improvements and aggressive marketing and pricing moves.
According to Audit Bureau of Circulations figures for the six months ended Sept. 30, the paper saw a slight 2.1% increase in daily circulation, which reached 1,050,176. Sunday circulation rose for the first time in six years -- to 1,361,748, a 0.9% improvement.
It was the third ABC reporting period in which the paper enjoyed gains.
Mr. Klein reports that in the first 10 weeks of this year, daily circulation gained another 29,000 copies, and Sunday 32,000.
NEW CIRC PROMOTIONS
Circulation promotions instituted under Mr. Willes include a multimillion-dollar ad campaign via DDB Needham Worldwide, Los Angeles; a reduction in the daily edition's single-copy price from 50 cents to a quarter; and joint marketing efforts with such retailers as Federated Department Stores' Macy's, Starbucks Coffee Co. and Barnes & Noble.
Several new editorial elements -- including a Monday business section feature, "The Cutting Edge," devoted to information and high technology, and an expanded weekend sports preview on Friday -- were incorporated.
Mr. Klein -- who, in his days as a lawyer, represented the Times and its reporters in First Amendment cases -- argues that much of the criticism being hurled at the new marketing plan misses the point.
"We're not trying to do anything that would violate issues of journalistic integrity," he insists.
Mr. Klein compares the new general managers to brand managers for consumer products.
He says the general managers have two goals, he says: maximizing readership and maximizing financial performance.
oN RIGHT TRACK
"In the past, someone woke up every morning and thought about the sports section or the business section, and that was the editor of that section. But nobody on the business side thought about that [particular] section. Now we have that," he says.
For several years, Hearst Corp.'s Houston Chronicle has been using "new product committees" comprised of employees from advertising, news and other departments, says Dwight Brown, VP-advertising at the Chronicle.
Mr. Brown says he thinks Mr. Willes is on the right track.
"How he's implementing this in the organization is probably causing some growing pains. It's tough for an organization to go through that level of change."
Every two weeks, the Chronicle's teams meet to consider such prospects as growing readership, increasing the profit margin and creating new sections, Mr. Brown reports.
One group recently spent a year developing a new weekend entertainment section. The paper also sponsors weekend-long, off-sight "breakouts," which bring together staffers from different areas to discuss long-range plans for the paper.
The Chronicle has recently launched two major marketing campaigns -- one aimed at advertisers, the other at readers.
"Reinventing the newspaper" is meant to sell the Chronicle as a one-stop shopping source for ad buyers, emphasizing the paper's range of print and electronic products. Many newspapers these days are similarly positioning themselves -- playing up editions tailored to specific communities, Web sites and other media.
"Touching the news that touches you" uses daily-updated radio spots aimed at encouraging readers to spend more time with the Chronicle.
Since the mid-1980s, Tribune Co.'s Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel has charged "project teams" with such initiatives as redesigning the business section.
Editor Earl Maucker says he finds the use of cross-divisional teams neither unusual nor offensive.
"We do not in any way have to cross our journalistic principles," he says, adding, "We have to reach the reader, and that has to be uppermost in our minds. But that doesn't mean we can't look to opportunities that would appeal to the business."
But Mr. Maucker wonders whether newspapers should go so far as the Times, creating what he views as "superficial structures" to promote communication between factions. "Anytime you have to develop an artificial structure," he warns, "you're going to run into some problems."