How one Florida paper is doing better work–with a happier newsroom

Amid all the doom and gloom about the economics of the newspaper business, it can be easy to think that the best we can hope for editorially is managed decline. But one small chain-owned paper in Florida is showing that it’s possible to do better than before—and that a corporate-mandated newsroom restructuring can be managed in a way that actually leaves the remaining staff pretty happy.

That paper is Gannett’s Pensacola News Journal, located at the far western end of the Florida Panhandle. Not long ago, the PNJ was suffering disproportionately. During Gannett’s 2013 layoffs, the paper lost the most staffers of any of the company’s four papers in the state, though two of the other papers are larger, according to numbers posted by Gannett Blog.

But in spring 2014, the PNJ rallied to deliver some truly impressive reporting when a major flood hit its community and the local jail exploded. And, after the paper was restructured as one of Gannett’s “Newsrooms of the Future”—a term that executive editor Lisa Nellessen-Lara admitted to me was “corny”—its sights have remained high.

Between December 2014 and April of this year, the PNJ rolled out three major multi-day series. These aren’t investigative pieces that expose bureaucratic bungling or lead to politicians getting indicted—they’re more along the lines of explanatory journalism. But the PNJ is tackling important issues, like child abuse, invasive species, and the struggles of an old mill town.

That’s right, a small newspaper in a chain long known for relentlessly reducing complex issues to infographics is putting resources into long narratives.

The PNJ is both getting recognition for its efforts—the paper was the top winner in its division at the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors awards this year, with 16 prizes including a community leadership award for its coverage of the jail explosion—and finding ways to expand its online audience. But perhaps the most striking thing I heard over the course of interviews with a few PNJ journalists last week is how much they’re enjoying their work, thanks to new opportunities to dig up enterprise stories and try out new ideas.

Sign up for weekly emails from the United States Project

“I don’t remember it being this good, not since the ‘90s at least,” said veteran features writer Troy Moon, who has been with the paper nearly 30 years. “There’s a lot more freedom to do your own thing. We’re having fun. The editors aren’t telling us, do this, do that. [Nellessen-Lara] is trusting us to use our instincts.”

Kevin Robinson, who has been at the paper for three years and was one of the reporters to cover the jail explosion in 2014, tells a similar story. “We went through so many changes in the newsroom,” said Robinson. “You always felt this pressure of, ‘If I’m not putting two stories in the paper every day, I’m not doing my part.’”

Today, he feels freed up to take a day to go look into an issue, or spend time contributing to one of the big projects. Robinson worked on the child abuse series that ran in April, which prompted spikes in single-copy sales and was most-read on the site that week, according to Nellessen-Lara.

The community reaction was really satisfying, Robinson said. “We got so many calls and emails from people saying ‘You’ve changed my perspective,’” he said. “We felt like we kind of moved the needle on the issue.”

As at other Gannett papers, the newsroom restructuring meant the paper added reporters even as it cut overall staff. Two design positions were eliminated and the PNJ has fewer editors, while there is now one extra reporting position, said Nellessen-Lara, who joined the paper in early 2014.

The bigger changes have been in how coverage decisions get made, and in the roles of the remaining journalists. “We said we have to stop filling holes,” said Nellessen-Lara—meaning, assigning stories to fill gaps in the print edition. “It was scary at first.”

Now, if there’s a hole in the Tuesday local front, editors find a good wire story to fill it, or use that space to promote something they’re doing online, Nellessen-Lara said. With less daily pressure, reporters have more time to dig up enterprise stories and work on those long-form projects.

Regular beats have been reworked. Robinson’s beat, for example, was changed from traditional police coverage to allow him to focus on crime and justice, with the goal of turning in enterprise stories like this one on how people in the Panhandle really need to learn to lock their car doors.

And the new focus has freed up staffers to try new things. Andy Marlette is the PNJ’s award-winning cartoonist. This year, in the FSNE contest, he also won first place for editorial writing. Now he’s writing a weekly column, too.

“I was always semi-literate,” Marlette joked. But he really appreciates the new agility he’s seeing in the newsroom management, he said. “Shoot, they let a cartoonist start writing a column.”

Moon, the veteran features writer, is also writing a regular column now. In the new role he has tackled some fraught issues, like white Southern guilt, and some fun, uniquely local ones, like the Pensacola punk rock band Maggot Sandwich. “His online traffic has just grown by leaps and bounds,” said Nellessen-Lara. (In a follow-up email, she added: “Every day he comes in and says ‘is it OK if I write a column today?’ And every day I say, ‘Yes, Troy, you can always write columns, write more!’”)

The PNJ is also trying interesting things with multimedia, including Marlette’s droll videos in which he reads reader letters to the editor, some profane, complaining about his cartoons.

Reporters and editors are also now a daily feature on a morning news program put out by the local public access station, BLABTV.

“They came to us with the proposal and they had sunk some resources in it,” Nellessen-Lara told me. “We don’t have to do anything but show up for 15 minutes a day. That’s something we never would have done back in the day. We would have thought ‘oh no, they’re competition.’”

At first, the segments were one of those things that just added work for the small staff, Robinson told me. Because they aired live, PNJ staffers had to be up and working at 7 a.m. But the station worked with the paper to find a more convenient hour to record the segments. “They worked with us so it worked for both sides,” he said.

It’s a challenge for ever-shrinking newsrooms to prevent staffs from feeling overworked and stressed out. But giving reporters a little freedom to do work they’re passionate about instead of forcing them to keep “filling holes” is key to keeping up morale—and it seems to be going a long way in Pensacola.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.