These are dark days for newspaper companies in the U.S. There are layoffs in print newsrooms, classified ad revenues are dwindling, and readership is shrinking. To combat these trends, Gannett introduced a bold initiative in 2006 to remake its 85 daily newspaper newsrooms into “Information Centers,” making the web the primary platform for 24-hour news, with more video, databases, maps and community interaction.

In the two years since the initiative was launched, Gannett has provided staffers with training in video production and database development, and has altered the news production workflow to ensure staff is on hand to update websites around the clock. The company also runs a centralized Digital Production Center Network to provide web production support for its smaller outlets, in places like Appleton, Wisconsin, and Great Falls, Montana.

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Jennifer Carroll

Gannett vice president for digital content Jennifer Carroll told Wired magazine= last year that many newsroom journalists were hostile or baffled by the new plans, but they went along with the changes, knowing that their jobs were at stake. Now, Carroll points to success stories like the Parkersburg tornado coverage by the Des Moines Register to illustrate the wisdom of Gannett’s digital approach..

“We trained their whole staff [at the Register] on how to shoot and edit video, so now they have a talented video culture that didn’t exist two years ago,” Carroll told me in a recent interview. “They put it all together — all the things they’ve experimented with — and did a stellar job. There was a small town of Parkersburg that was ripped apart by tornados…Through incredible work by the graphic artists, they went and took pictures of the damaged homes there, before and after, and used that to build a story to show a community that is coming back.”

The interactive map of Parkersburg allows you to view various parts of town that were damaged by the tornado. There are photos of the devastation, along with video stories of survivors and cell phone video of the tornado, along with text stories of what happened in various locations. The site received an honorable mention in the recent round of Knight-Batten Innovation Awards.

Of course, there have been skeptics of Gannett’s initiative. One former USA Today reporter, Jim Hopkins, described the move as “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” on his blog. Plus, the digital push hasn’t turned around the media company’s fortunes. Gannett’s credit rating was recently put on “credit watch” by Standard & Poor’s with negative implications — meaning, it could be downgraded.

Carroll has been traveling the country, visiting (and revisiting) Gannett Information Centers to see how being a digital operation is affecting the culture, mindset and morale. She told me that Gannett Digital — the company’s overarching digital division — will eventually include more than 100 technology and IT staffers, more than doubling the number before this initiative. She talked to me about hiring trends, and gave me a progress report on the Information Center push at Gannett. The following is an edited transcript of our phone and email conversations.

Give me an overview on how the Information Center strategy has worked out so far.

Carroll: We were especially interested in compiling deep, local information with visual tools, mapping and original documents and the idea of crowdsourcing and putting a premium on community involvement and interaction in all we do. And at the same time moving to a 24/7 continuous news update mindset. In the beginning we were testing assumptions about the breaking news business and what that means, and we realized that we had fallen out of that. We were doing breaking news but we weren’t doing the right kind of breaking news on our websites. We had to change the positions and the times that reporters were coming in so that we had an immediacy to everything that we were doing.

At the same time we were going back to continuous news updates, we wanted to push the edge in doing public service journalism. One of the things we’ve learned over the past couple years is that truly changing the jobs and what people do in them really changes the culture. We’ve been doing more experimenting to take advantage of what we see as a laboratory with very innovative people who want to try to change and have a passion for what they do and for journalism.

That’s been extremely rewarding, because it’s not just our younger staff that has innovated but our 30-year veterans in the business who might be still photographers who are really amazing videographers and are really enjoying the storytelling aspect of what they do through video. People are combining skills in every corner of the news operation.

As I’ve gone back to visit those operations, they are continuing to innovate and excel in the areas that they were stars in the first place. As an example, the Des Moines Register…hired data experts and visual programmers who understand the utility of the data and how people come in and use the mapping. In other words, ‘Can I just go in and type in my neighbor’s address to see what they paid for property taxes vs. mine?’ How do we make that easy and understandable and put the consumer at the heart of that?

Out of the seven key areas in your blueprint for the initiative — public service, data, community conversation, local, custom content, multimedia and digital — did you decide which ones were more important than others? How much did you leave that up to the papers to decide?

Carroll: What we outlined was the key areas that every newsroom must [implement], and if not, then we could continue doing training so even the smaller operations would have some resources and knowledge of how to do it right. At our larger papers, we asked them to do all seven areas, but we gave them a blueprint and it was up to them to decide how to do that in their communities.

It was first and foremost public service that expands print to digital to mobile and whatever form that people, including younger audiences, would want to access that. The Des Moines example is a good one for quality public service, showing how tornados and flooding affects the community and what’s at stake, and what needs to happen to ensure that it won’t happen again. So it’s public service, leading to databases, which have continued to grow in terms of importance and potential. We talk about community conversation as being paramount to everything we do, and welcoming the wisdom of the communities, and introducing blogging and social media tools so communities of interest can find each other in new ways.

In Ft. Myers, Florida, they have done a great job reaching out to diverse organizations including philanthropic organizations who can have a bigger voice by having a persona page on the newspaper website. In Rochester [N.Y.], they were looking at reaching people who may not have used the website in the past, so they went to a young professionals organization and showed them all the new tools, and worked with them to build a website within the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle site. Now they have a robust site that they can do themselves, and can post what happens in their meetings and their photos — so we can customize in a way we wouldn’t have been able to do before.

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CinciNavigator

As for local, we have many medium-sized market newspapers and even in our larger papers, like in Cincinnati, we have more than 200 hyper-local niche geo-targeted sites. With the right kind of tagging, we can populate those sites with all sorts of content from the newspapers and we’ve developed all kinds of community publishing tools so people can submit their stories, photos and videos. We call this pro-am, a combination of professional contributions and some from the community.

If there were three or four sites worth looking at, one is in Cincinnati. Their Cincy Navigator is a very interesting mapping/database tool, where you can see anything from crime that happened yesterday to businesses that opened around the block. It’s very utility-driven. In their community sites, you can see the “Get Published” tools, and they have words like “share” and not “be a community journalist” because people are very intimidated by that. And we have the reporters serving as ambassadors who hand out cards and let the community know that we value their input as well.

Our newsrooms have adopted the mantra of write for online, update for print. Everything is thought of for immediacy and getting it out the door.

Has that been a challenge for the smaller papers?

Carroll: We have 40 smaller newspapers that are part of our Digital Production Center Network, which means we handle their production for them so they can operate 24/7 websites and can turn around the content. Our test site for moving to a continous news operation was in Wilmington, Del. When we launched and they restructured their operation to do that, in the first month they had an increase of 2 million page views. So we realized that a news site needs to be a news site and be constantly updated.

We had to adjust some staffing and got really good at rapid fire updates. It’s a news wire or AP model, and we had to realize that a fender bender is just as important as a five-car crash. The larger papers have the production staff to do their own websites and the smaller papers do not. They are still in charge of doing their content, but we just do the production for them.

Do the smaller ones really have a 24-hour news operation?

Carroll: I would say it would be more thinly staffed between midnight and 6 a.m. on the smaller sites. But we do have some of our larger papers, like in Honolulu, they have hired someone who is there around the clock and is equipped to run out and do breaking news stories, do video and all those things. I was just in Westchester, and I am so high on them because they were testing community conversation, which can mean so many things. What they’ve become very good at is video. Their mantra is that everything needs to be produced in four or five different mediums. So a lot of their reporters have iMacs with cameras, and they can do live blogs which become podcasts, video that feeds into it, and the main narrative.

The education reporter, for instance, told me if news breaks she can update her blog from her desk, and it’s interesting to see that they are not limited by the delivery mechanism or the container. It’s just different content for different audiences depending on their preferences. If you prefer print, then we want to have the very best analysis and reporting and prose possible. If you prefer instant smaller bites on the website, we have that as well. If you have your own research, then we can provide it with our databases. Or if you prefer audio podcasts, we have that as well. We have to continue to think of how we can grow and each medium has its own crediblity.

In audio and video, what kinds of content have worked with each medium?

Carroll: I think the Parkersburg example is one where the video just tells the story. The video [entices] you to read more and get more background. It shows how video can effectively enhance your work. At the same time, it doesn’t have to be highly produced; it can be quick-hit, it can be short, it can be used to enhance your podcast. There’s so many different ways to approach things and experiment with.

Another area for experimentation for us is when we run major reports on Sundays, we publish the database earlier in the week. Here’s one example: The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle did a story on police overtime, and they published the database on a Thursday night before the Sunday print publish date, and immediately saw hundreds of people going to the database and checking out police overtime. Because there was high interest online, they knew there would be high interest when the newspaper report came out, and they had the highest single copy sales of the year that Sunday.

What we’re seeing is that if we use the mediums in the right way, if we use the website for data, which is the way people use websites — click, quick-hit, search, move on — and back that up with the way that people use print — sit back, analyze, synthesize — we can be much more effective. So we’re constantly thinking of ways to use all those tools to build on each other.

How have the hiring patterns changed? I know you’re hiring a lot of people in digital, but there have also been company-wide layoffs. How do you see that working in the big picture? Do you see more tech people and programmers coming in? How do you see the jobs changing from place to place?

Carroll: You’re right that we have stepped up our hiring of people who have knowledge of databases over the past two years, whether that’s web design or video editing skills, but we’ve also focused on training our existing staff as well. It’s been really rewarding, and it’s incredible when you ask people what skills they’d like to learn, when they are using their cell phone or going online, you find a lot of people with their own blogs or you find a lot of people who enjoy doing their own video. When you invite them to do that professionally, it opens new doors.

Unfortunately all this was launched against the backdrop of a declining industry and shaky economic times and it was never meant to be an answer. It was meant to be a way to innovate and grow and try to transform at the same time that economic realities were forcing budget cuts. The first year we launched the Information Center was 2006, which was the same year Knight-Ridder was falling apart, which validates that we need to be as committed as ever to making it work.

At Gannett Digital, we are hiring, and it’s not just areas like content, which is my chief area, but also in business, analysts, and people who are experts at metrics and understanding where people are going online, and making sure we have done rigorous usability testing. And we’re also expanding IT, which I think the entire industry has underfunded, so we’re putting a lot more horsepower into having experts on IT and technology.

There’s never been any shortage of ideas, but [it’s been a shortage of] access to programmers and developers and IT people to make them happen. We’ve short-changed ourselves so that’s probably one of our biggest areas of growth.

Many newspapers complain that it’s expensive to get good programmers or that it’s difficult to recruit them because they’d prefer tech companies or startups. Has it been difficult to hire them at Gannett?

Carroll: We’re right in the middle of a major hiring period at Gannett Digital for exactly those kinds of people and we’ve been very impressed by the response. Some are coming from startups, some are coming from existing online companies, others are those that we’ve gone out and recruited in the past couple years. We have been a lot more proactive about being in places we weren’t before, like tech conferences and R&D sessions. We’ve tried to learn and grow so we can stay ahead instead of running to stay in place like everyone else.

We’ve done a lot of hiring over the past three months in all these areas: product development, audience, technology and operations. At the same time, the economic realities that are affecting all sorts of pockets across the United States, including in real estate, have forced newspapers to make reductions so we are putting a premium on innovation and growth to support some of the work that our local newspapers are doing. We are taking on the R&D role that they don’t have the staff to do.

What about the ways that ad sales are changing, and how can local papers better collaborate on making sales online?

Carroll: I think there has been an ongoing need for innovation in digital ad sales front as there has been on the journalism front. From what I’ve learned and read, it’s very difficult for print reps to also sell online and mobile. Instead of offering these as add-ons — which was done a lot in the early days — we have to say, ‘wait a second, these are premium ad positions and they have to be sold that way, the way that people are using rich media.’ So we need to be more strategic about that.

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When we have passionate sites like [the local sites for moms], and we’re about to launch a national MomsLikeMe.com site, which ramps up the aggregated reach of all our moms sites — we have more than 60, with more than 1 million daily unique visitors and 12 million to 14 million page views. We have very rich local engagement on our mom sites. We have always been able to sell that locally and in new ways — to children’s hospitals and to birthday party catering and home cleaning services and that sort of thing, because we know we have a targeted audience, especially of younger mothers who come to our site.

We’re rapidly launching in Gannett markets and have launched in 17 non-Gannett markets — and will have 80 local sites by the end of the week. Each site has a local manager who is instrumental in local community connections and engaging area moms. We are coordinating marketing and sales from here. Content — most of which is fueled by conversations between local moms — is all done locally. We also have a lot of interested national advertisers who [want to reach] younger mothers in a medium that they enjoy, which is driven by conversation and connection.

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What do you think about Gannett’s Information Center push? Do you think they are making the right moves, and that it will help the company survive in the long run? What else could they be doing to help deal with the digital shift? Share your thoughts in the comments below.