The little paper that could have been
Twenty years ago, the Boca Raton News was the future of newspapers. Its publisher chose it for an expensive experimental redesign aimed at retaining and engaging readers — an
initiative that went on to influence how publications present news on paper today. In a town popular with baby boomers and snowbirds who may feel most comfortable with newsprint on their fingers, one might think the Boca Raton News would be safe from the evolution and dissolution of modern newspapers.
The Boca Raton News published its last print edition on Aug. 23. Boca Raton News columnist Jack Furnari wrote in a Sun-Sentinel column on Aug. 21 that the paper’s offices were shutting down and staffers would be unemployed. The Sun Sentinel reported the same day that the newspaper, which first launched in 1955, would move to an online-only format to replace the thrice-weekly print edition. So far the site looks like a bare-bones news blog run solely by managing editor John Johnston.
Back in 1989, the Boca Raton News was publisher Knight Ridder’s prime choice for the 25/43 project, named for the generation it was trying to catch: baby boomers.
Knight Ridder executives wanted newspapers to be readable, with fewer “jumps” from stories on the front pages continuing within the paper. Moreover, the project was meant to pull in readers who thought they were too busy to read the newspaper.
Lou Heldman, distinguished senior fellow of media management in journalism at Wichita State University in Kansas, led the project in its run from 1989 to 1991. His team started at The State in Columbia, S.C., developing prototype sections and testing them with focus groups. The next step was to test some of the research under daily conditions. “That was what we went to Boca to do,” Heldman said in an e-mail interview. Chairman Jim Batten “called it ‘the weapons laboratory for Knight Ridder,’” Heldman recalled.
When the new Boca Raton News debuted in October 1991, it featured a pink flamingo on its mast. Colorful graphics were joined by shorter stories and a weather map that took up the entire back page of the paper. Maps were used to orient readers to the location of a story. The whole thing was similar to USA Today’s bright, brisk style.
The paper’s circulation didn’t change much and remained around 25,000, but readers seemed to like the design and consistent daily format. “We basically remade the paper,” said David Hertz, vice president of Dix & Eaton, a communications consulting firm in Cleveland. He worked on the News’ metro desk during the project and remembers maps that alerted readers to crime news. “Every day we ran a map that showed where a particular event took place the day before. It helped bring home the perspective of, ‘yeah, that was Dixie Highway right where I go to work every day.’”
A report by Kris Kodrich in the Newspaper Research Journal, Summer 1998, looked back the 25/43 project and its results. A reader survey from 1991 showed that 94 percent of baby boomers liked stories contained to one page. The survey also found that 95 percent liked the increased use of charts; 87 percent liked the maps, and 99 percent liked the design. Even without circulation numbers, the project could be considered a success. Although it was the only newspaper transformed through the project, elements of the project spread and became part of the way newspapers are designed today.
Hertz said that people who were brought in to remake the newspaper eventually moved on — taking what they had learned in Boca Raton with them. He said in a phone interview that the crime maps pioneered by the News showed up in papers across the country. He left Boca Raton to join the Akron Beacon Journal in 1991, taking with him the main message he gained from the project: connect with readers. His experience with the 25/43 project contributed to the Beacon Journal’s investigation of race relations in the early 1990s, for which the newspaper sponsored discussions during community-wide forums. That project led to the creation of the Coming Together project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving race relations in Akron, Ohio. “We ended up winning the Pulitzer for public service that year,” Hertz said.
The Boca Raton News was sold to Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. in October 1997, and what’s left of it is currently owned by the South Florida Media Group. Managing editor John Johnston said he was not in a position to comment about the situation at the publication.
The Sun Sentinel reported that the News shut down its office after more than 50 years because of the high costs of printing and distribution. The paper had been published five times a week until late 2008, when it scaled back to three days. Its last thin issue was dominated by colorful advertisements. It is unclear what took down the Boca Raton News after it showed so much promise during the 25/43 project. But it is unlikely that news-hungry baby boomers will embrace a Web site stocked thinner than the paper’s last print edition. Although the Boca Raton News may not have lasting power in this new world of newspapers, the effects of the 25/43 project can be seen in other publications and in the work of journalists nationwide. The Boca Raton News, however, might be remembered as the little paper that could have been.
— Lisa Rowan
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