Why deadlines don’t matter any more
It’s a good thing deadlines don’t matter any more, given the growing number of newspapers forced to go to press earlier in the day to accommodate the production of multiple papers at a single plant.
Although the idea of putting the morning paper to bed before dinner might seem at first to dangerously compromise the quality of the news report, earlier deadlines actually provide editors with a golden opportunity to reinforce the relevance of their publications by breaking their own local stories on their own time.
More on that in a moment. First, some background:
Luxuriously late deadlines are artifacts of the time when newspapers made so much money they could afford to build multimillion-dollar plants that operated only a few hours a day. With sales down and profits challenged, publishers across the U.S. are saving money by consolidating the production of multiple titles at single locations.
The need to sequence the printing of several publications in the same plant — and the time involved in hauling the finished product longer distances to their intended markets — is forcing publishers to back up deadlines ever earlier in the day. “We now have significant dailies being printed nearly 100 miles from their market centers,” says production consultant Alan Flaherty. “Roughly speaking, a mile of distance equals a minute of deadline.”
Since there is no apparent way around the economic imperatives forcing early closes, it’s time for newspapers to make lemonade out of this seeming lemon. Far from being a bad thing, this is an opportunity for the industry to take some long-overdue steps to improve its competitive position. Here’s what I mean:
Instead of chasing the national, international, entertainment and sports stories that ricochet around TV, radio and the Internet before ink can be put to paper, editors can escape the unavoidable latency of print by publishing unique, local stories that distinguish their products from all other competitors.
Instead of feebly trying to put a fresh gloss on yesterday’s news — or, worse, acting like an 18-hour-old story just happened — editors producing unique local coverage can make TV, radio and the web chase them. Turnabout, after all, is fair play.
By marketing themselves as the leading local news source in their communities, newspapers can reassert their value to readers and advertisers — and perhaps reclaim some of the alarming number of readers and advertising dollars they have lost in recent years.
This transformation will improve morale in every downsized newsroom and right-sized printing plant in the land, giving the shell-shocked survivors a refreshed sense of confidence in themselves and the future of their business.
Fortunately, this magical transformation requires little actual magic. But it does require editorial vision, strict discipline and considerable forward planning. And, remember, “plan” is not a four-letter word.
OK, I guess it is. But you know what I mean.
The process of capturing the local news agenda is simple: Pick stories of sweeping significance to your community, report them completely, tell them compellingly, pursue them relentlessly and play them effectively. Repeat as necessary.
That doesn’t mean every story has to be a 12-week investigative opus presented in a sprawling, six-part series replete with elaborate graphics and sidebars. It doesn’t necessarily require a multimedia extravaganza featuring videos, interactive maps and original documents exhumed from King Tut’s tomb.
While all those storytelling tools are valuable when appropriately deployed and skillfully executed, most readers will tell you that short and well-written stories are sweeter than long, self-important ones.
Rather than trying to conquer with quantity, newspapers should use their scarce resources to cover carefully selected matters that, well, matter. Instead of chronicling every routine meeting, press conference and police call, papers should stop sweating the small stuff so they can zero in on stories that:
:: Explain the consequences of official actions.
:: Expose social ills and civic wrongdoing.
:: Expand such quality-of-life coverage as education, environment and recreation.
:: Empower consumers with actionable ways to make or save money as they struggle through the bleakest economy in several generations.
:: Extol the people and places that make every town special.
:: Enhance community life by serving as a guide to organizations, events and activities.
:: Expound wisely, fairly and constructively on the editorial page on all manner of local issues. Be sure to solicit opinions from qualified spokespeople to cover the other side.
While this recipe can help newspapers make lemonade, the converse also applies: Early deadlines mixed with desultory coverage will be downright toxic. Please mix your cocktail responsibly.
(c) 2010 Editor & Publisher