For the past six months, staffers across The McClatchy Company have spent hundreds of hours talking with readers in ways we’ve never done before.

Robin Johnston, design director with the McClatchy Publishing Center, interviews reader Nathaniel Sanders in Raleigh last November. (Photo courtesy of McClatchy Publishing)
Robin Johnston, design director with the McClatchy Publishing Center, interviews reader Nathaniel Sanders in Raleigh last November. (Photo by Joan Barnett Lee/McClatchy)

We’ve asked them to dissect their news habits for us, watched how they viewed videos, probed why they quit a story, read to the end or shared it with others.

In more than a century and a half of publishing, McClatchy, like our peers, has devoted millions of dollars to understanding our print and digital audiences with such standard tools as annual readership surveys and tracking metrics.

And yet, when the company last year began a fresh look at where we’re headed, we concluded that too many of our presumptions were outstripped by the dramatic media shifts of the past few years.

Technology has altered so much about the reading experience – from the pace of news, to how stories are best told, to the way people choose for themselves what’s newsworthy. It was time to find new approaches to explore how all of this applies to local news.

With the help of professors from Stanford’s Institute of Design and media designer Mario Garcia, we’ve finished the first part of this review. Starting this spring, we’ll launch new versions of our websites, newspapers and mobile apps in the first phase of a broad evolution of how we publish.

McClatchy is a company committed to figuring out the media transition at the same time as we uphold valuable newspaper traditions.

We believe the need for compelling local news coverage has never been greater. Our 29 newsrooms have kept up investigative and project work throughout the turmoil of the past seven years. We’ve maintained a strong Washington Bureau as most other companies have closed them.

But none of this will mean much if we don’t confront the shifts in how people want information.

That’s the reason for spending so much time taking apart precisely how our audience is evolving. Unlike research of the past, conversations with readers in this project started at square one: How did they approach the last big news event they followed? How have their reading and viewing habits changed? What works and what doesn’t in what we’re doing now? What succeeds when it comes to advertising?

As we worked to rethink our print and digital editions, we returned to readers and users over and over to see how different concepts worked for them. Once an idea turned into a prototype, we brought in research firms with expertise in gauging usage.

The initial phase of this work will go into place in May at the Sacramento, Modesto and Fresno Bees and the Merced Sun-Star before making further changes and moving to other McClatchy papers over the course of the year.

Prototypes of the Sacramento Bee in tablet, newspaper and mobile sizes as well as a special section from the Miami Herald.
Prototypes of the Sacramento Bee in tablet, newspaper and mobile sizes as well as a special section from the Miami Herald.

Here are some highlights of our plans:

Content: Our newsrooms will focus above all on two primary tempos of news: breaking and developing news on the one hand, and deeper stories on the other. Though both have long been part of our report, the concept will be elevated on each platform and woven into the design.

At the same time, with the help of a new tagging technique developed by the American Press Institute, each newsroom is drawing up a list of signature topics to pursue. They’ll help focus the deeper reporting readers say they care most about.

Storytelling: We’ll expand the ways stories are told to more often go beyond narrative forms. Readers say they want more choices in storytelling: Some stories are best told broken into parts, some as maps, timelines or databases, and some in structures that let people take in as little or as much as they like. There will still be plenty of traditional pieces, but all story types will be strengthened by variety.

Video: We’ll expand our video coverage as more people turn to video to get their information. We’re adding 30 new editors, producers and videographers to existing video staffs to build a company-wide digital video operation.

Digital distinctions: Readers are looking for different things from the web, phone and tablet. So a key part of our publishing plan will be to highlight those distinctions: speed, efficiency and utility on the phone, for instance, visual distinction on the tablet, and breadth on the web

Print edition: We’ll remake print editions to better fit today’s news landscape. Like digital, the print edition must play to its strengths. It’s not the way to deliver breaking news, but it’s hard to beat for in-depth reading, as a once-a-day compendium of news and to provide a sense of completion readers say they crave.

The weekday newspaper will be reorganized into three sections (two for smaller papers) with a deeper report on Sunday. The edition will include a daily section devoted to in-depth coverage and a new design all about enhancing reading.

Modern design: Led by Mario Garcia, designers from McClatchy and Garcia Media spent months creating approaches to storytelling, typography, navigation, advertising and news structure that work across all platforms.

Mario Garcia, founder of Garcia Media, looks on as reader Janet Chiavetta reviews prototypes with Cheryl Carpenter, managing editor of the Charlotte Observer. (Photo by Joan Barnett Lee/McClatchy)
Mario Garcia, founder of Garcia Media, looks on as reader Janet Chiavetta reviews prototypes with Cheryl Carpenter, managing editor of the Charlotte Observer. (Photo by Joan Barnett Lee/McClatchy)

Our readers have taught us a lot – and we hope that shows with the first launches this spring.

But those initial launches will feature only the first of a long list of ideas we’re working on. Since the pace of technology is only accelerating, we’re planning to make these reader conversations a permanent part of how we do our jobs.

We’re starting to work now on experimental approaches in video, better ideas for story-level pages, personalization options, different advertising concepts and better ways of saving stories for later reading.

We look forward to sharing what we learn as we go.

Anders Gyllenhaal is vice president of news and Washington editor at McClatchy. He can be reached at Agyllenhaal@McClatchy.com or 202-383-6002.

Editor's note: The Poynter Institute and The McClatchy Company have a multi-year partnership to develop and offer journalism training to all McClatchy staff.