Oklahoma Gazette today barely resembles the community newsletter it was founded as 30 years ago.
After decades of evolution, countless redesigns and appearance tweaks, and an editorial mission widened beyond its mission of historic preservation to examine and celebrate Oklahoma City arts, entertainment, news and culture, Gazette is dramatically different than it was just years ago.
While birthday celebrations often honor the past, taking stock and planning for the future is the only way to secure a legacy worth reflecting upon later.
Recent years have been economically tough, especially for publications tied to the drawstring of tightening advertising budgets, many of which are increasingly divided and allocated to competitive voices previously unable to reach an audience. The Internet brought along with it factors many businesses never even really considered. But while the territory is fresh and teeming with potential and promise, our maps are just crude correspondence from early explorers who've somehow survived this New World.
The data points needed to successfully plot a course to new media are daunting, but Associate Publisher Jeffri-Lynn Dyer said Gazette will continue to orient itself to the one variable it understands: readers.
"Everything we do is based on what the community needs and what our readers are asking for," she said. "If we continue to do that and stay true to that mission, the platform will be irrelevant."
Dyer said keeping the attention to loyal readers while developing a younger audience that will grow to support a newspaper requires both balance and an ability to adapt to changing interests. Responding quickly to audiences has the added benefit of cultivating a sense of ownership among younger readers. Gazette's redesign in 2003, expanded coverage of local restaurants and bars and a relatively recent focus on nonprofits and volunteerism were ideas that stemmed directly from surveys and conversations with readers, she said.
"The types of things we do regularly now we just didn't do 10 years ago," Dyer said.
Since launching its Web site in the mid-1990s, Gazette continues to experiment and tinker with ways to engage local audiences online, she said. Unlike many publications, Dyer said age and "lifestyle" aren't significantly different among Gazette's respective Internet and print audiences. Instead, the difference is the two audiences' very different priorities.
"When you look at the traffic patterns on the site, they're very specific. You can follow the masses; 90 percent of them all go the same way through the site," she said, adding in contrast that "no two readers I've ever talked to about the print product go through the book the same way."
Eric Rezsnyak, features editor and new media director at the City Newspaper in Rochester, N.Y., describes some "crossover" between that paper's print and Internet readers, but said online-only content has attracted readers the paper never would have captured with newsprint alone.
The City Newspaper, an alternative newsweekly with circulation of roughly 39,000, is centering much of its long-term strategy discussions around the Web. Like Gazette, which publishes about 52,500 weekly, the City Newspaper tailors much of its Web site to local readers with breaking news, restaurant reviews and expanded arts and entertainment coverage, but Rezsnyak said the paper recently tapped into swaths of online readers with non-locally focused blogs, specifically entries about reality television shows, stories and articles he said would never appear in print. While many of the blog readers that come to the paper's Web site have little interest in Rochester-based cultural coverage, he said many local readers have become regular online readers of the non-local content " a surprise for a paper that has long focused all its coverage on the Rochester community.
"Is it adding a worthwhile debate to the local community? Probably not," he said. "It poses an interesting dilemma. If we're too global, we're not a local paper, but so far it's been a good supplement."
For Gazette, Dyer said transforming its Web site into too-general an outlet would be a risky move unsupported by the interests and habits of its online readers. With a core business model largely affected by the price of physical commodities like ink and newsprint, Dyer imagines the future possibility of a paperless Gazette, but said readers should expect stacked racks for quite some time.
"In the next 30 years, there will still be a print product in some way, shape or form," she said. "Joe Wertz