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Electronic research tool helps the Arizona Republic reconnect with its community

The Arizona Republic gave respondents laptops with software that supports electronic brainstorming, prioritization and survey assessments in its effort to redesign itself to better connect with the issues and the community.

Authors: Douglas Griffen,Robert Duley

Read all about it

Editor’s note: Douglas Griffen is managing partner of D.S. Griffen & Associates, a Phoenix, Ariz., consulting firm. Robert Duley is vice president of professional services and alliances at, a Tucson, Ariz., collaborative knowledge firm.

The question seemed simple enough when it appeared on the laptop computer screens of the Phoenix, Ariz., focus group participants: “If you were describing Phoenix to a friend who lived in another state, how would you describe the city and what differentiates our community from any other community?”

In other words, what makes Phoenix Phoenix? For the Arizona Republic, the largest daily newspaper in the state, it was a question that began a fundamental effort to redesign itself, to better connect with the issues and people that comprise the fastest growing metropolitan area in the country.

In early 1999, the paper’s editors began sensing that the community had changed, that it was looking for something different from its newspaper. A redesign was in order. But how could the paper identify what that “something different” was and incorporate it into a redesign that would be unveiled just nine months later on January 1, 2000?

The answer was to employ a research method that allowed selected readers of the paper to electronically brainstorm, to categorize and prioritize simultaneously and anonymously how the paper’s coverage stacked up against their impressions of what differentiated this community, and what critical topics influenced their lives. It was a given that the paper would cover the news; the challenge was to go beyond the news and convey a sense of place for its readers and its community.

Readership summit

Back in October 1998, two of the paper’s executives had participated in a National Readership Summit in Dallas, sponsored by the Newspaper Association of America (NAA), with leaders of other major American newspapers.

The summit featured a discussion of the issues that were affecting readership in the United States and the strategies newspapers could use to increase readership.

The discussion was facilitated using an approach called the Advanced Strategy Lab, which was co-developed by D.S. Griffen & Associates, a Phoenix consulting firm, and McLean, Va., research firm Wirthlin Worldwide. The lab incorporates technology from Tucson, Ariz.-based which allows organizations to simultaneously and anonymously collect strategic information from group participants. It automates the process so that the group can brainstorm key questions, categorize important themes, gain consensus and prioritize strategies or issues, and identify appropriate action steps (see chart).


Chart 1

For the Dallas Readership Summit, each session participant was given a laptop computer connected via a local area network (LAN) with software that supports electronic brainstorming, prioritization and survey assessments.

A typical Advanced Strategy Lab session involves 20 participants in a U-shaped environment, each with their own laptop, connected via a LAN. The Lab uses electronic tools and facilitation techniques that are designed to stimulate cognitive thought, enable collaborative reasoning and remove the obstacles to effective group achievement.

Respondents type in their responses to questions posed by the moderator. These questions are preset into the computer program used (the Advanced Strategy Lab program). Respondents not only can see their own answers on the screen but also the answers of all respondents to the question. With the facilitator’s help, the group follows a methodology to classify the responses on-screen, vote and prioritize them, and reach consensus on next steps. This allows for thorough brainstorming — respondents don’t have to wait for someone to finish speaking before they enter their ideas, and because they contribute anonymously, the group doesn’t favor people who speak loudest or hold the highest rank. Graphing tools are also incorporated into the program to facilitate the sharing of information.

Could readers help?

During the Readership Summit, the Republic executives wondered if the brainstorming technology could have the same impact in focus groups with newspaper readers. Could the readers themselves help guide the impending redesign effort?

In early 1999, Ellen Jacobs, research manager, the Arizona Republic, was asked to review the Advanced Strategy Lab’s potential use in the redesign research. “We knew that we would be conducting a major readership survey in June of 1999, and what we needed was the ability to fine-tune that survey, to identify the reader issues and topics that really mattered. We also needed a way to really involve the newsroom, to get their buy-in to the idea that fundamental changes were required, and that the readers would have a way to identify and communicate those changes. The use of the electronic brainstorming in a focus group setting became the backbone of our redesign.”

The project took shape quickly in the beginning of 1999. “Formal reader research has been well supported at the paper for many years,” says Jacobs. “What we saw in the use of the Advanced Strategy Lab was an opportunity to blend both quantitative and qualitative research in a way that would be highly effective for our reader participants, and highly energizing for our newsroom observers.”

Critical themes

Douglas Griffen, managing partner of D.S. Griffen & Associates, was brought in to conduct the focus groups. He and Jacobs designed a set of six focus groups that would use the same basic flow of key questions, but would change to reflect the demographics and experience of the participants.

To allow for comparison of newsroom views with reader views, focus groups were also conducted with newspaper employees and with newsroom editors and writers, people who obviously had a keen interest in the outcome of the redesign and certainly had strong views of their own on life in Phoenix and the topics that mattered most to readers.

The employee sessions would also build credibility for the process – which is important, because it’s never easy to create organizational change – and would allow members of the organization to be part of the research process and not just be affected by its outcomes.

Each of the electronic focus groups was designed to be conducted in three hours. The employee sessions were conducted on-site in a day, while the four reader focus groups were conducted in an off-site research facility in the evenings to allow newsroom executives to observe.

The live data from the sessions was displayed on monitors in the client observation room during the sessions. “There were two important results of being able to view the sessions as they were happening,” says Jacobs. “First, our newsroom members became part of the process. They were energized by the directness of the comments from the readers, and it created a great deal of buy-in about the results. Second, it allowed us to make last-minute changes based on what we were seeing.”

The four reader groups of 20 participants were divided as follows:


  • Loyal readers – These respondents were long-term subscribers who said they read the paper each day.
  • Sunday-only subscribers – These were people who, while they may have purchased the paper at a newsstand or over the counter on other days, focused their newspaper reading on the weekend.
  • At-risk readers – Two groups of 20 readers each were recruited from this segment. They bought the paper when interested, but did not subscribe. Their general readership was less consistent than other groups.

For all four groups, a base protocol and session guide was developed that gave participants freedom to respond to open questions and allowed the newspaper to compare relative themes from each readership group, and to compare the reader groups to the internal newsroom groups that were held.

The sessions addressed the following topics:

– Perceptions of Phoenix: Each group had an electronic brainstorming question asking what their current image of Phoenix was as a place to live. What characteristics distinguish the city? How would they describe it to friends from another state? These characteristics were immediately categorized/summarized for the group by the session facilitator.

– Perceptions of the Arizona Republic: Each group then reviewed the summary characteristics of the city (what makes Phoenix Phoenix) and was asked two open-ended questions: In what ways does the Arizona Republic accurately reflect or match up to the perceptions that you have about the city? And, in what ways does the Arizona Republic NOT match up well to the perceptions? In what ways could the Arizona Republic just be “anybody’s paper”?

– Identification of coverage topics: The next section for each group was a critical trigger question that asked, “In your view, what are the most important topics that you would like to see the Arizona Republic cover?” After a period of brainstorming, the topics were categorized and reviewed by the participants to ensure that all of the key topics had been included in the summarized listing.

– Assessment of topic coverage: The participants then electronically assessed the summary topics in two key ways. First, they voted on the topics they felt were most important to them personally. Second, they assessed, using a 1-10 scale, how well the paper covered each of the topics, where 10 was the highest level of coverage. Results of both assessments were immediately available to the participants as well as to the observers.

– Input on key topics: Because the results of the previous votes were available immediately, the readers were then asked for more detail on the top topics they had selected. They were asked what specific information would be of most value to them in each of the top three topics.

– Identification of local topics: Because one of the goals for the redesign was to better connect to the readers on local issues, respondents were asked what they felt were the most important local news stories, features or topics that the paper should cover. Again, open brainstorming was followed by a summarization of the key local topics.

– Assessment of local topics: Readers then assigned importance to each local topic and indicated how well they felt the paper covered them.

– General readership issues and recommendations: Two open questions were posed to each group regarding readership. First, readers were asked what they felt was causing a general decline in the readership of newspapers on a national level, and second, what would they do to increase readership if they were the publishers of the Arizona Republic.

– Classified ads: Finally, an electronic survey asked the readers a series of questions about their use of classified ads, and what they liked and disliked about the paper’s approach to classified ads.

“This was the best of both worlds from a researcher’s viewpoint,” Jacobs says. “We were getting qualitative data using quantitative assessments. We not only got key topics, but we got underneath those topics by asking what was important about the coverage of each key topic. It really was helping our editors to see if they were in touch.”

Long-term implications

The sessions had both short-term impact and long-term implications. From a short-term perspective, those in the newsroom got feedback from readers. They also got an unfiltered sense of the view of the community: Phoenix has a great climate, good economy, warm southwest style, lots to do in terms of recreation and sports, good quality of living, and is not a bad place at all to raise a family. But it also has urban sprawl, uncontrolled growth leading to increased crime, pollution, traffic and education issues. Everyone, it seems, is from somewhere else, so there’s strong diversity, but no clear community or cultural sense. It’s a city in the making, and therefore it creates a tremendous opportunity for the major newspaper to weigh in on key issues, trends and topics.

The top 10 topics of interest to readers are shown below. For each topic respondents also gave their view on the quality of the newspaper’s coverage of it, which created an immediate gap analysis for the newsroom to review and assess their coverage plans. In some cases, the coverage was not adequate; in some topics it was right on. With sports for example, there was a sense that the level of coverage exceeded its importance.


Chart 2

The two most important issues had the largest delta in effective coverage: local news and happenings, and transportation issues and information. The city’s explosive growth has made transportation a hot-button issue as stress and frustration have risen with the level of freeway congestion and lack of information about road closures.

“These sessions had a very high level of credibility with our editors,” Jacobs says. “In some cases, we took immediate actions and didn’t wait for longer-term redesign. For transportation, for example, we created a section called Bumper to Bumper that we announced within weeks of the sessions. Bumper to Bumper was a concise and consistent place [it’s on page B2, every day] where readers could easily see the entire city mapped out in terms of current freeway construction, road closures, and recommended routes. It was also a place for readers to vent their frustrations through letters and comments.”

Meeting the goal

While the sessions did allow the paper to make some immediate adjustments, it was focused on meeting the goal of unveiling the redesign on January 1, 2000. In conjunction with the redesign effort, the paper conducted the aforementioned reader survey in June 1999. “We used the results of our focus groups to craft the survey and ask the readers more in-depth questions about key topic areas that we knew were critical. We could test elements of our redesign with the survey, which would reinforce our redesign strategies,” Jacobs says.

On New Year’s Day, readers woke up to one of the most significant redesigns in the paper’s history. New sections included The Arizona Diary (to examine the question of what makes Phoenix Phoenix), Smart Living, Arts and Entertainment, and a section on The Good Life.

A caption in the Reader’s Guide that accompanied the redesigned paper was very clear about why it had changed. The goal of the redesign was to make sure that the Republic was:

“A newspaper involved in your life.

A newspaper protecting your interests.

A newspaper connecting communities.

A newspaper organized with you in mind.”