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Review-Journal advisory board suggests changes to features section

After spending part of an afternoon last week with the Review-Journal’s Reader Advisory Board, I came away thinking we need to make some changes to our features section or risk losing them as readers. I wasn’t the only one. We limited last week’s discussion to the features section because of time constraints, but our new features editor, Stephanie Grimes, filled a notebook.

Some of the staples of our features coverage have been around for years, and panelists suggested we reset our mundane approach or at least rethink how we present them. (To backtrack for a minute, our reader advisory board meets monthly, and is made up of a dozen members from around the valley to critique the R-J’s website and print edition. From the beginning, we asked the panel to be blunt in their assessments. So far, they have not needed any reminders.)

Our weekly garden column, for example, needs to go, they said. It just doesn’t generate much traction. Their view is shared by our online readers, who avoid it in droves. That much we know because we can track the actual readership through the magic of Google Analytics.

Another area of coverage that needs to be retooled involves local theater. The advisory board challenged us to come up with fresh new ways to cover the arts. They favor fewer reviews so we can open up space for other relevant content on the arts. “Don’t back off. Change it up.”

R-J Goes to a Party also needs a facelift. The message was starting to sound familiar: “Yes, we want to know about the important news involving nonprofits, but it has to go beyond the banquet circuit.” The R-J’s coverage comes off as “elitist,” one member said.

Other areas of coverage they would like to see more of:

Technology. Not more tech coverage for the tech savvy. Instead, they would like to see more offerings, for example, on how to make better use of their smart phones or cool apps. Whether such coverage belongs in the feature section or business doesn’t much matter to them; they just want more of it.

Off-strip entertainment. Locals don’t want to limit themselves to the Strip, and our advisory panel suggested we gear more of our entertainment coverage to things they can do away from Las Vegas Boulevard. Their sense is that as Las Vegas has grown, so has its entertainment options for locals, not just tourists.

NEON. They love the Friday section, but it can be improved, too. The advisory board suggested we trim the endless pages of listings that provide little context for readers and replace them with hand-picked suggestions for your “best bets” for that weekend’s entertainment.

Though she’s worked at the R-J since 2013, Stephanie was only named features editor in August. As such, she is not heavily invested in “the way we’ve always done things.” She’s anxious to make some adjustments where they’re needed, especially now that she has been admonished by the advisory panel to shake things up.

“I’m excited about how this went,” she said. “I think the participants were thoughtful and informative, and a lot of what they said was in line with the direction I’d like to take the department … to free ourselves from the constraints placed upon us by the past.”

The month prior, at our September meeting, we spent the session critiquing our website and mobile apps. Part of our process for choosing members of the panel revolved around their preference for reading R-J content on all platforms, not just online and not just print.

We were advised to rethink the display of our home page. There is not enough content on the top half of the page, compared with what follows below it. “Mix it up,” they advised. “We want more choices right off the bat.”

They also suggested we take a page from other publications’ websites and do a better job of providing links to stories related to what they’re reading at the moment, including previously published stories that provide context and perspective.

Finally, they said we should change our clunky options for personalizing their preferences — how we provide alerts and news “flashes.”

They can’t get enough weather coverage, and we should display it more prominently. When it comes to weather, apparently there is no such thing as too much.

The goal of any changes in our website or features section — or any other section — is to increase the readership. Before we make significant changes in the content, we’d like to hear from you, too. Please send your suggestions and participate in an upcoming online survey, which we will promote in print and online.

— Michael Hengel (mhengel@reviewjournal.com) is editor of the Review-Journal. He can be reached at 702-387-2906. Follow him on Twitter: @mhengel

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