Jim

How they would improve their local newspapers

In Smartness, The news biz on October 2, 2007 at 9:10 pm

I recently asked folks on LinkedIn [ http://www.linkedin.com/pub/1/692/416 ] how they would improve their local newspapers. I got a gob of answers, and many of them were very insightful. (Because I didn’t ask for permission to quote, I won’t attach names or identifying information to any answers. However, I take no credit for any of the smart ideas that I share here.)

The best answer was probably this one: “Post this question in your paper for your readers to answer.” Of course, when we ask readers what they’d like from us, they ask us for (or flatly demand) the world: More local news, more investigative reporting, more happy news, more Nascar, less Nascar, and so on. It’s to the point that we really don’t wanna ask. But that withdrawal from our readers is killing us. Rightly or wrongly, readers sense that journalists aren’t much like them, and that’s hugely off-putting. We need to open up to readers, and actually give a damn what they think — even if they want a bunch of stuff there’s no way in hell we could afford to give them.

My next favorite answer came from someone who’s in the newspaper business:

Gear it toward young working moms. Short snappy news, ala Jon Stewart. Something I can cook in under 20 minutes with five ingredients and something fun to do with my family the next day. Tips on how to look good, work smart and make more money. Make it portable enough to stuff in my purse on the way out the door so I can read it over lunch. I guess what I’m saying is give me something useful in as short amount of time as possible.

Hell. Yeah. What’s the lifeblood of papers? Retail advertising. Who makes most of the retail purchases in the family? Mom. Whom do we write, edit and design our papers for? Grandpa.

WTF?

It can be done. The paper I left behind, Bluffton Today, was extremely popular with moms. In fact, we struggled a bit to improve our numbers with men.

——–

For those of you keeping score, here are all the answers that weren’t sent to me privately:

Simply put, I’d want bolder design. Fewer story starts, larger photos, more color type. That isn’t to say I want to sacrifice stories for the sake of a look. I think it’s possible to run fewer stories and still offer breadth and depth in coverage. Let the design reflect the commitment to each individual story.

And, for the boring stuff — more uniformity in fonts. No italic type. Sans serif all the way. Judicious use of subheds — too many newspapers use them simply because some yahoo said we need more display type. So we end up with two or three subheds in a 16-inch story. That’s utter codswallop. If a story’s good enough, it doesn’t need trinkets to draw people past the lede or the jump.

—–

My local daily paper, The Oregonian (a Newhouse publication), is dragging its heels into the Information Age with unfathomable stubbornness. They have a web site, but stories are “free” for only 14 days or so. This is not a problem in itself – they have the right to profit off their content – but links to stories that have “expired” are utterly dead. They lead to strange pages with big white gaps in them, and not the slightest hint how to find the story for purchase. This has a far-reaching impact on our city’s ability to track its own history; it impacts business development and public safety when certain stories are “unfindable” even when clicking in a link from a blog or Wikipedia; etc. etc.

Beyond that, the site’s design is abysmally ugly, and takes no advantage whatever of Internet technology – you’ll never find a link to a related story or a business’s web site, for instance.

Many other mid-sized papers – many owned by Newhouse – seem to have the same issues. Larger papers like the NY Times seem to “get it,” and local papers like the Portland Tribune and Portland Mercury do very well online, having a market incentive to do so. But this sign, among many others, indicates that there is no such thing as true competition in our market for the paper of record.

Fortunately, alternative news outlets and blogs online appear to be thriving, and I’m hopeful that they will largely supplant and render irrelevant the Oregonian in the next 5 years – unless the Oregonian manages to catch up with the times.

—–

Jim:

As a longtime newspaper editor who’s been away from the business for over a decade, I’ve thought about this question a lot — and considered, a time or two, going back into newspapers to act on some of the opportunities I envision.

Simply put, my local papers just have never fully grasped the Internet. They look at it as a secondary medium — a place to post stories that have already made it into print — and fail to leverage its ability to break all kinds of news & views 24 hours a day.

The first move I’d make as editor would be to inform the writers that they’re now writing for the Internet. Blog from the City Council meeting. Send in quarter-by-quarter reports from the basketball game. Give us live weather/traffic reports that are meaningful when we need them. I want to see reporters reporting live for the Internet, and then their dispatches can be edited and refined as necessary for the next day’s print edition. There’s no excuse for making breaking news wait to break.

Local papers also have to realize that in a world of instant & global information, their role isn’t to make sense of all the day’s world & national events (unless there are good local angles). All that information is available elsewhere and better. What the local papers need to focus on is their core competency: Local news. Taxes and zoning and schools and entertainment — the stuff that has immediate impact on our lives.

Finally (for now), local papers need to get better at pushing information out to readers via email, text messages, podcasts — all the popular media. If traditional newspaper readership is down among adults, can you imagine what it’ll be like with “Generation Me” — the MySpace generation with its smart phones iPods and shorthand communication?

Oh. And y’know? Just allowing readers to log on anonymously and make snarky comments about local news stories — that ain’t exactly maximizing the interactive possibilities of the Internet. Find more creative and productive ways to invite news readers into newsmaking.

That would be my soapbox for the day. :)

—–

I gave you a long, long private answer — but my short answer was, lead the reader a little more by letting the design hierarchize stories on the page and allow for multiple entry points, specifically pull quotes.

That gives the reader the sense of being led that he/she gets from a blog, but allows newspapers to retain their essential advantage that they are produced by competent professionals who are not necessarily blathering on about their cats.

—–

HI Jim,

Two things would make a vast improvement:

1. Swing to the center, too far left or right is more like a magazine than a newspaper.
2. Usability. Please, for the love of your customers arms, change the size to something more manageable! Newsday, NY Post, Daily News all have great designs, if they were all that size, it would be bliss!

I know that #2 may not meet the inexpensive criteria, but I am wiling to bet it would improve circulation :)

—–

I’m going to answer this as if the … weeklies we publish are “my local paper.”

I think our pubs would be vastly improved by giving more thought to alternative story forms/charticles/etc. Our features ed does a good job of breaking stories into several elements, but the other assignment desks aren’t thinking this way. The copy desk doesn’t pull wire copy or slot the book or have more than a minor say in content — much less so than at your typical daily — so this effort would need to come from the assignment editors, at least the way our newsroom is structured right now. I realize we’re vastly behind the curve on this.

One of my biggest frustrations — as a bystander, pretty much, because of how we do things here — is that as a weekly paper, we publish the equivalent of next-day stories that are frequently old news before we go to press, let alone hit the stands. Gannett is pushing a focus on Web operations, and, aside from technical issues, we’re making progress. But I see us missing opportunities to, for instance, do a roundup of what happened on the Hill this week in our print pubs and make more space for news features (which is one of our strengths) with compelling narrative and details. All the breaking Hill news, DoD announcements, etc., could go long on the Web, but if something happens on a Tuesday and we close the weeklies on that Friday, it’s nearly a week after the fact (Monday) before the papers are on the newsstands. Then they sit on the stands for a week. Add mailing time for subscribers. It just seems like we could be doing this more intelligently.

—–

My local paper is the Washington Post. Design wise its very stodgy. It needs to be more progressive. There are too many “cute” trend pieces. And I’d drop the whole “objective” journalism thing. It’s getting old. And isn’t objective and statements or outright lies are just reported. Because if you asked for verification or fact check yourself — it suddenly becomes an opinion. Or something? We need outwardly liberal papers. And we need news to take a stand. That’s what its there for. Or was. So I’d mirror bolder design, less obvious “trend” pieces. And more open political and theoretically charged dialogue. Oh and their new website: sucks. It must go. It replaced functionality with flash.

—–

I love the NY Times, but I would make the pages smaller like other papers. It is so clutzy to read.

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Hi Jim.

I would like to see more of a focus on local issues. More content that discusses things that effect our community day in and day out. National and international news can be had more quickly via the internet and cable. By covering local issues that the aforementioned media do not cover the local newspaper can provide valuable information that cannot be found in other media.

—–

post this question in your paper for your readers to answer

—–

Because the cost of printing a newspaper is very high, most newspapers cover a fairly large geographic area (the Bergen Record covers two New Jersey counties with over 150 municipalities).

How about graphics to help us identify which articles cover each locality? I’d like to see a small map graphic next to each headline (in the Record, a county map with the township or borough highlighted).

And lots more tabular content showing figures for each locale (I always locate my township in the tables of school results, to see how we compare to the other towns).

It’s frustrating trying to locate stories on-line (to send a link to remote friends, or to cut and paste citations into a letter to the editor). It would be a help to have a URL at the end of each printed story.

Many newspapers already print the E-mail addresses of the writer and/or editor for each local story. That’s helpful if we have corrections or questions; for example, if a story is about a family that lost its home in a fire, the report is often the best source to ask about where to send offers of support.

As far as general format goes, … I’m an old fashioned typographer in the sense that I want the format to help me understand the structure of the article(s), and otherwise stay out of my way (every few years, I reread Beatrice Warde’s “The Crystal Goblet”), so keep it simple, and keep it consistent.

However, I do have one general comment on format: make the news hole as clearly separate from the advertisements as possible (if the ad manager will let you ;<) ). I hate missing a story because it’s buried somewhere down in the bottom right corner, away from all the other stories.

Given that we’re all becoming used to hyperlinks, how about a LOT more cross-references? The New York Times puts a lot of company names in bold (and on the Web site, those names are links to more information on the companies). In print, a list at the end of the article indicating where to look for more information on the highlighted terms (company names, people, organizations, etc.) would at least give us some of the benefits that the hyperlinks provide on-line.

—–

I work on the desk and in the field. I have been accused recently of working for a Commie rag and the status quo.
I believe more desk editors need to spend time with real people in real places.
Starbucks might count, but the local diner matters more. You don’t have to eat the chicken-fried steak.
Get out of the office and see how people feel in general. See how people feel about your product.
We all hate Brittney.

—–

E-Book Versions. That is the Future. Rich Media. Audio. Vibrant Colors.

—–

While growing up we had at least 15 newspapers in Los Angeles. We now have two prominent paper and local advertsers. Where are the many voices? Where can we read the many points of view?

For me, here is what a newspaper has to remember. It is news on paper.

It is not all bad news although I expect that crime and politics will provide much of the stories. I also want to read good news about local heros, sports winners and good works in the community.

I want reporters with a journalism training and a drive to get to the truth, that will tell me the complete story verified by multple sources. I don’t want sound bytes or conjecture, I want depth and verification.

I don’t want opinion veiled as facts. When you want to give me your opinion, label it clearly as editorial. Then give me ink to write in and say my piece in rebuttal.

I don’t want canned syndicated articles, I want by-lines from local reporters and columnists that I can learn to love and hate. That I can see on the beat.

I don’t want them making news. I want them reporting it.

I don’t want to read about the weather across the county, I want to know what I should wear tomorrow right why I am.

I don’t need to know about every sports statistic in the world, but I would like the local schools, theatres and charities to get their achievements in print.

I want diversions that only print can provide. Puzzles, cartoons, maps, charts, photographs.

Most importantly I want local advertisers who will entice me to spend my money town. Tell me what’s new. Why I should have it and how they will take care of me as their customer. They can buy all the display display ads they want but please don’t write pretend puff pieces when they do.

Create a community classified that educates as much as it sells.

I love to read a paper. I love to cut out stories and coupons. I love to laugh at the funnies. I love to cry at heros. I love to start my day with a great community paper.

Notice I don’t think that graphics and typefaces are why people buy papers, it is content pure and simple.

PS all the links to the web, radio, tv are fine and there are many ways to interweave new technology with old. I don’t want to read a headline that teases me into a story only to be told I have to use another medium to get learn the details. You never told me I needed a computer to read your paper.

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