Students Go to Town on Makeover

By Fitzgerald, Mark | Editor & Publisher, July 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Students Go to Town on Makeover


Fitzgerald, Mark, Editor & Publisher


The 15 graduate journalism students in business attire flanked the stage at Northwestern University's McCormick Tribune Center in Evanston, Ill., smiling nervously and taking one last look at the notecards in their hands. It was showtime once again for the Media Management Project Class at the Medill School of Journalism, a unique program in which a real newspaper hires the class to research, prototype, test, and create a product in 10 intensive weeks.

In the audience were executives from the Chicago Tribune, the Daily Herald, Suburban Newspapers of America, and others from beyond Chicagoland. Media Management program leaders Rich Gordon and David Nelson, who along with adjunct lecturer Cynthia Linton had kept the class on track for the last academic quarter, worked the audience. Medill Dean John Lavine slipped into a back-row seat.

But for the grad students, the most important person in the audience was sitting on the aisle of the third row. Pete Esser is publisher of the Holland Sentinel, an 18,345-circulation Morris Communications Co. daily in western Michigan. He gave the class its task: Improve our readership and increase our revenue in the quaint town of Zeeland, population 5,805. The Holland paper presently hits that town with a weekly Zeeland Sentinel inserted in the main paper, and a total market coverage product.

Zeeland challenged the grad students' first impulse to design something really daring and digital, project co-coordinator Brad Flora said after the presentation. "We were convinced there wasn't going to be any print at all," the New Media student says. "It was going to be Rotten Tomatoes meets Craigslist meets Flickr."

But then they met Zeelanders. Matt Bigelow tells the audience that in their focus groups and conversations with merchants, students heard the same descrip- tions repeatedly: It's a family town, close-knit, conservative, Christian. "For a conservative community like this," Bigelow notes, "we realized we wanted to be innovative but not overwhelming." Zeeland is also growing up, though, and feels it has an identity apart from its bigger next-door neighbor, Holland.

At first blush, what the Medill students created was not unlike Morris' hyperlocal Bluffton Today in South Carolina. …

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