Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Why deadlines don’t matter any more

This column originally appeared in the October issue of Editor & Publisher Magazine. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

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


Blogger Unknown said...

Alan: Provocative and thoughtful, as usual. I dissent to the degree that deadlines don't matter at all. It's my experience that the majority of existing print customers expect their daily to have timely general news reports, especially when it comes to major developments. It's assumed to be part of the package. I fully agree, however, that preserving late deadlines is far less important (and increasingly unlikely) than is embracing the approach you outline so well. A compelling news publication will always attract readership. Many thanks for the tough love prescription.

6:23 AM  
Blogger Newsosaur said...

From Sheldon Senzon:

Alan, you state the obvious, of course local is the way to go but not doable without the man/woman on the corner. TV and Radio figured it out a long time ago, too bad the Tribunes of the world were so arrogant and ignorant.

I moved from NY to South Florida 20 years ago and have 7 day delivery of the NY Times. I don't want the Sun-Sentinel (Sun-Senile) in my driveway, regardless if I can get it for $1/week.
Anyone can aggregate news/sports nationally, the very reason for newspapers is to provide local news. Funny how local papers with 30-35,000 circulation manage to keep the lights on during the economic (advertising) downturn. We both know it goes deeper than not having legacy labor costs.
I've dealt with newspapers for the 35+ years I've been in advertising as a Media Strategist, the sales folks were and are nothing more than order takers sitting in front of fax machines. Their idea of a marketing partnership is to offer fire sales on 4/C ads rather than bringing something of substance to the table.
Thanks for letting me vent, I give you credit for writing your blog but we both know the lights will be turned out sooner rather than later with newspapers.

7:36 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Our paper has already done that, focus on the local and, lately, consolidate printing, which has made for earlier deadlines (bummer for sports).

As lemonade-y as that has been, the reality is still this: manpower. Each reporter and editor is doing the work of two (or three). As much as I'm still proud of what we do with so little, it's increasingly harder to cover the community "completely, compellingly, and relentlessly."

That's not even getting into the advertising death spiral.

Morale? Hmmm ... no comment.

9:10 AM  
Blogger Dick Farrell said...

Well, deadlines do matter. Readers looking to find information on their local team winning a playoff game were very disappointed to find only a couple of paragraphs in their morning newspaper, which has a newsstand price of $1.50 (soon to be $1.75 I'm told.)
And your suggestion as to the type of stories newspapers should do are right on the money. Only newspapers, especially the small community newspapers, have shed so much staff that the news staff doesn't have time to investigate anything, let alone wrongdoing.
I love your stuff but your perception is different than the reality.

8:55 PM  
Blogger b said...

I agree with Vicki. The community news is not being adequately covered because of the shortage of manpower. I am not in the newspaper business, but I do know that our local paper is steadily losing customers. They are reporting less local news and replacing it with fluffy cookie cutter pieces. How can local sports be reported with early deadlines?

Public officials are engaging in back door meetings and there is no reporter to report the news. What about transparency and accountability?

Our community happens to have some bad cops. Shouldn't the newspaper expose and extol the dirty things that are happening right under everyone's noses? Two words, “Investigative reporting”. Now, that sells papers!

"Enhance community life by serving as a guide to organizations, events and activities." ?
Uh, this is nice, but it doesn't sell papers! News, even if it is 18 hours old, sells papers. The radio does not compare to newsprint. What is the average radio listener’s retention? Probably seconds. It doesn't compare to reading it in print or seeing the front page picture of the burning building or a pass being intercepted at the big rival game.

You want to sell me a magazine! I don't want a magazine; I want a newspaper with real news articles, and sports information. Seriously, you have got to be kidding! Deadlines do matter!

11:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just stumbled across this post by accident - interesting article!

You refer to "the growing number of newspapers forced to go to press earlier". Which papers are you thinking of? The LA Times/WSJ deal would be an obvious one, and one could think of the Chicago Tribune/Chicago Sun-Times one (though ChT claims all that extra volume fitted without altering deadlines) - but I can't directly think of any other examples to be honest...


9:54 AM  

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