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Just the jolt it needed: AgriNews redesign embeds a reader-first philosophy at every step

Creative Circle project blends design changes with headline, story-form training

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By Carolyn Flynn
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““Now there’s an electricity to our newspaper.””
James Henry, executive editor, AgriNews
““People have just really responded to the fact that we are now telling their stories through their own words. They have a greater sense of ownership. It really is their newspaper.””
James Henry, executive editor, AgriNews
““It’s not just the aesthetic. It’s taking a look at the stories and how we are telling them.””
James Henry, executive editor, AgriNews

Quick look: AgriNews

Owned by Miller Media Group, sister paper to NewsTribune

Publishes two editions offering statewide coverage of Illinois or Indiana

Headline font: Whitman Display Condensed and Benton Sans Condensed

Text font: Concorde BE

Signature colors: AG green as primary; AG golden and AG grey as secondary

Launched: Late August 2014

Goals: To rejuvenate product to be more competitive in the market; to more deeply engage readers in an effort to reduce churn and grow readership; to ease production and improve planning and interdepartmental communications.

With a dwindling audience and new competition on the horizon, the AgriNews needed a jolt if it was going to keep being relevant to its nearly 40,000 readers in Illinois and 20,000-some readers in Indiana.

So the agricultural newspaper turned to Creative Circle Media Solutions in 2014 for a redesign.
That changed everything. The redesign was a change from the inside out, with audience engagement embedded in every step, said executive editor James Henry.

“Now there’s an electricity to our newspaper,” said Henry, who has continued to build on every milestone by adding newsroom training that sustains the fresh new voice of the paper.

The AgriNews faced significant competition from digital and broadcast outlets, weekly agriculture newspapers, as well as magazines that ranged from general agriculture interest to specialized sectors of the industry, such as pork production, cattle-raising, corn cultivation and equipment.

But the reader-first philosophy that emerged out of newsroom discussions with the Creative Circle redesign team has equipped AgriNews to bring the paper alive, not just improving photos and headlines but improving the interviewing and story presentation strategy.

“People have just really responded to the fact that we are now telling their stories through their own words,” Henry said. “They have a greater sense of ownership. It really is their newspaper.”
The newspaper had lost sight of its core readers, said president and publisher Joyce McCullough of Miller Media Group, the parent company to the AgriNews. “When AgriNews arrived in the mail, I’m sure there were dedicated farmers who read it. Some read it for the ads. But I don’t think it was what a young farmer family would read.”

While the goal was to improve presentation, the conversation quickly turned to better approaches to newsgathering, what McCullough calls the deeper questions.

The pivot was toward a reader-first approach. For example, the standard question at a Future Farmers of America show would be, “Why did you come to FFA?” That usually yielded a superficial answer: It’s wonderful here, I’m having a good time. But when reporters shifted to questions that told sources they really wanted to know more, it pushed the FFA students think. Questions like “what did you see that had the most impact on you?” or “what did you see at the show that you can use in farming?” got better answers.

That has translated to stirring up more interest from advertisers, McCullough said, which is important because AgriNews is a targeted publication. “It’s more important to our advertisers that we deliver to the right audience than a huge audience.”

Land of the head shots

The old design was “stuck in head-shot land,” Creative Circle lead designer Lynn Rognsvoog said. “Visually, it was boring.”

The headlines were weak and very often not about the reader, Rognsvoog said. Headlines did not describe how someone who is a farmer could do his or her job better, she added.
But it didn’t take much to generate better ideas with the staff, once the issues were identified. “They are among the best clients I’ve ever worked with as far as taking those ideas and running with them,” she said.

Everyone was eager to try new methods and implement new ideas quickly, and each time, they would have a big success, she said. “After each step, they would say ‘wow, that moved us forward, where can we take it next?’”

More tools through story forms

Reinventing storytelling in ways that engage readers more is part of any redesign, but sometimes a paper wants to go deeper. That’s when Creative Circle Media Solutions offers training in ways to use alternative story forms, which subvert the old-style inverted pyramid.

The more president and founder Bill Ostendorf and lead designer Lynn Rognsvoog offered about alternative story forms, the more AgriNews soaked it up.

So the training expanded even after the redesign, when Creative Circle coached staff members on innovative approaches such as timelines, Q-and-As, walk-and-talks and pro/cons.

When executive editor James Henry says the Creative Circle team has ignited his staff, he’s thinking about the way staff members have embraced alternative story forms. “It was all pretty dry,” he said. “We needed a jolt of energy.”

The story forms catalogue that Creative Circle provided has become a bible for reporters. To get their feet wet, reporters started with Q-and-As, which are popular with readers but require well-written questions.

Now, AgriNews reporters are looking for timelines in stories and experimenting with pro/con stories and presentations that include more charts and graphs.

One of the most popular features in both the Illinois and Indiana editions of AgriNews is the walk-and-talk, which features many faces, along with a thoughtful insight about a relevant issue in farming.

“That’s something that farmers are really reacting positively to, because they are seeing so many more people like themselves,” Rognsvoog said. “They love that.”

Responsive, readable

Paying more attention to packaging and to typography also was aimed at readability, making the paper easy to navigate. The breakthrough on packaging came out of an early prototype when Rognsvoog pulled a small story on honeybees from the back of the paper to pair with an up-front feature. Designers noticed that approach and liked having that tool.

“They have taken that simple idea of packaging and built wonderful and complex coverage of things readers find interesting,” Rognsvoog said.

Readability carried through to the way the AgriNews staff approached packages, with easier-to-digest stories, multiple photos, multiple headlines, infoboxes and graphics. “We’re doing a better job of telling the complete story,” Henry said. But “in a way that’s easier, more fun for our readers.”

To do this, the newsroom had to change its mindset, not just be reacting to the news, but forcing themselves to be ahead of the news.

“We were caught in the production cycle of just trying to get stories and photos put together, print it and do it again,” Henry said.

The brainstorming as a team has led to more, better projects. “That’s been well-received by readers,” he added.

With each success, Creative Circle president and founder Bill Ostendorf challenged the team to do more. “We would achieve one milestone, and then they would challenge us,” Henry said.

But the trail always led back to better ways to gather news to engage readers more. “It’s not just the aesthetic,” Henry said. “It’s taking a look at the stories and how we are telling them.”

It wasn’t easy. Collectively, the AgriNews staff members had to ask difficult questions, Henry said. “We didn’t just slap a fresh coat of paint on it. We went much deeper than that.”

All this careful work has paid off, and they are hearing that consistently from readers that it’s working. Writing seem to have found their voice and are pitching more stories than before. “They have been able to recognize they are part of the process,” Henry said. “I keep telling this to everybody, if we think it, we can be it.”

Who’s this paper for, anyway?

The redesign of the AgriNews began with president and founder Bill Ostendorf of Creative Circle Media Solutions gathering the newsroom staff for a roundtable discussion.

He challenged everyone in the room to describe a character of who the AgriNews would be, if a printed newspaper could be a person.

Every person in the room had a different description. “We found we had a different perspective from what was reality,” said executive editor James Henry.

One of the myths was a warm, fuzzy scene with a farmer sitting at a kitchen table reading the paper, like a folksy best friend. But as the AgriNews team members dug deeper with Creative Circle, they more they gave thought to the business and science side of farming. “Were we providing the stories they wanted to hear?” Henry said. “This forced us to change.”

Over time, all of these conversations kept increasing the tools the newsroom had to work with. But more importantly, Henry said, it lead to productive discussions about philosophical matters, “like who we are and why we are here,” he said. “We went all the way to the beginning and established a foundation.”

Lead designer Lynn Rognsvoog agreed the process was worth it. “It’s a much, much better newspaper for their readers.”

Breaking down the barriers to success

“When we started working with AgriNews, the first problems we faced were about production and deadlines,” said Bill Ostendorf, president and founder of Creative Circle. “We wanted better work but the response was that the staff didn’t have time for that. They produced the paper on a tight schedule that packed all the editorial work into the weekend.

“When we are working with any team to upgrade their work, one of the first things we try to identify are barriers to success,” said Ostendorf. “Most newsrooms are full of smart, dedicated people but the end result is just less polished than you’d expect knowing how hard these people are working and the talent they bring to the table.”

Sometimes the barriers or a bunch of speed bumps. Sometimes they are pretty big walls. “The deadlines and workflows at AgriNews were like the Berlin Wall of barriers,” said Ostendorf. “The staff could not see past it. They couldn’t imagine improving anything with the deadline pressures they faced.”

Something had to give and Ostendorf gathered all the departments, along with president and publisher Joyce McCullough of Miller Media Group, the parent company to the AgriNews. “I told them we had to find a way to spread out the editorial work. To give the team more time,” said Ostendorf. That meeting didn’t immediately resolve anything, but the wide range of possible solutions put on the table that day – which ranged from buying new equipment to outsourcing printing of one edition to adding to the editorial staff – eventually led to significant changes in the printing schedule, production workflow and deadline structure, giving the AgriNews team a lot more time to produce the paper. “Joyce was great because she kept the pressure on and encouraged everyone to do whatever they could,” said Ostendorf. “And she was open to any new idea. It’s important that top management helps us push the teams to help each other overcome these kinds of barriers.

“But the problem wasn’t just deadlines and that alone wouldn’t have solved the problems,” said Ostendorf. “The editorial team had to change, too. They weren’t planning or communicating enough about stories, story lengths and visuals. If we just gave them more time, they wouldn’t make the most of it without changing those habits.”

So a big emphasis in the training was to build in that commitment to communication and planning so the extra time would result in better design and content.

“One of the ways we get buy in for our work is to find those barriers to success, those things people say just can’t change and we find a way to change them,” said Ostendorf. “That gets their attention. I’ve always said you can’t make a withdrawal until you’ve made a deposit. One of the things we have to do is show the hard-pressed staffs we work with that we care and we can change things. We can break down those barriers to success. But then we say to them ‘But now you have to do this for us.’

“Jim was great because he took that challenge and basically held up his half of the bargain,” said Ostendorf. “He and his staff are committed to better planning and they made it happen. Poor planning and communication are the biggest barriers to success we see in many of the newsrooms we work with.”