Monday, March 11, 2013

What newspapers should cover

Last month, I talked about how newspapers often squander their scarce resources by running stories that are longer than they ought to be.  Today, I’d like to suggest what editors can do with all the space they save by not taxing the time and patience of their readers.

The way to make room for fresh and relevant coverage, as suggested previously here, is to use graphics instead of words; to stop rehashing stories widely broadcast on television and the web, and to quit writing background-padded articles about incremental but unimportant developments in long-running stories.

In the interests of making the most out of the 20 minutes the average reader spends with a newspaper each day, publishers can enhance reader satisfaction in the following ways: 

Be local, not global

Too many newspapers still follow the old formula of putting world and national news in the front section of the paper, even though this sort of news long since has been usurped and commoditized by the broadcast media and the web.  With local news and advertising being the principal value proposition for every newspaper, it is only logical to give up-front treatment to those assets.  Extra inches should be devoted to coverage that reinforces the paper’s unique sense and sensibility of the community it serves.  Not random AP filler. 

Cover people, not process

Too many papers cover episodic, and often dreary, institutional activity, favoring regulatory hearings, legal proceedings, government reports and a wretched excess of unfortunate but largely insignificant crimes and fires.  Instead, newspapers should bring issues alive by reporting on the human dimension – and consequences – of the major events of the day. Rather than covering City Hall politics and school board squabbles, newspapers should write in human terms about how policies and official malfeasance affect individuals and the community.  Rather than talking about abstract subjects like the state unemployment rate, newspapers should provide career and job-hunting tips.  How will a decision to reduce library hours affect users? What are cops and community leaders doing to fight high crime rates?  How does park maintenance in our town compare with the maintenance in others? Think about the things that affect the daily lives of ordinary citizens.  Then, cover them. 

Look forward, not back 

Too many papers feel obliged to provide a rote and reactive recitation of events that already have been widely covered by the broadcast and digital media.  There is a better way forward than putting first-day ledes on day-old stories: Look for local angles, fill in background and, whenever possible, look ahead. To keep the news lively, pertinent and fresh, follow the advice of my late and beloved mentor, Howard M. Ziff, who said, “Just ask yourself what will happen next.”

Show, don’t tell

Public trust in newspapers is lower today than at any point since researchers first started asking Americans about their perceptions of the media in the mid-1970s. Only 25% of Americans had confidence in newspapers in 2012 vs. a peak of 51% in 1979, according to the most recent Gallup Poll. Although I don’t think the press is any less reliable than it was before Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin started sniping at the mainstream media, the best way for newspapers to build trust is to be as open as possible about what they do, how they do it and who produces the news.  Papers should explain their reporting methods, reveal their source materials and introduce their staffs.  This means (a) regular reports from editors on the stories behind the stories they publish; (b) the publication whenever possible of databases, official documents, polling data and other original source materials, and (c) publishing online bios, photos and contact information for every member of the news staff.  Familiarity, in this case, will battle contempt. 

Discuss, don’t dominate

Speaking of openness, newspapers have to do more to engage with their readers than simply accepting comments at the tail end of the stories they put on the web.  Although comments are a start, they are only a start toward building the rich, ongoing dialogue that every newspaper needs to develop in order to become the undisputed forum for the matters that matter in its community.  To engage, build and secure the widest possible audience – which is an absolute strategic necessity for newspapers at a time of dwindling circulation and tumbling advertising sales – publishers and editors need to actively invite community leaders to provide guest commentaries, articles and other contributions to the conversations that newspapers ought to be inspiring at the many points of presence they establish in print, in their own digital media and on third-party social sites.  In other words, publishers and journalists should think of themselves as hosts of an endless series of modern-day digital salons, convening discussions on everything from local politics to home schooling.  But the salons don’t have to be only digital.  There is nothing like face-to-face contact to build community, boost understanding and bring down barriers. What could be livelier than a regular series of live events? 

Be diverse, not insular 

Paging through most newspapers, you would think the world is run by a bunch of middle-aged white men.  OK, so maybe a disproportionate number of middle-aged white guys still happen to be governors, CEOs, symphony conductors, union leaders and university presidents. But the real world, as we all know, is far more diverse and complex than the universe portrayed in the institutionally driven coverage in most newspapers. Given the well-documented demographic changes overtaking the country, one of the chief things newspapers can do to make themselves more relevant at this pivotal time in their history (and that of the nation) is to feature the faces and stories that reflect the full measure of our wondrously diverse population.  This, incidentally, is not just good journalism. Like all of the ideas mentioned above, it will be good for business, too. 


Blogger Mark Whittaker said...

Alan ... I can't disagree with a single one of your suggestions. My lament, however, is that none of these ideas are new. That's not a knock on the column, because it's valuable to keep hammering on these basics of what should be the "new" journalism. But in my newsroom career, now over for 13 years (I moved to the online "dark" side in 2000), I participated in conversations and meetings about each one of the topics mentioned above. Working for Gannett for a time, I even helped put some of these ideas into practice. Yet in general, newsrooms remain captive to the inertia of the "good old days." What's going to motivate newsrooms to break out of the mold? That's a bigger, more important question.

2:25 PM  
Blogger MrMediaPro said...

I continue to commend you for trying your best to keep the lights on against ever increasing odds. I think you might have over simplied a chronic issue in today's newspaper world. Yes, Local is far more important than aggragating national news but an impossible task when there's no longer the staff to make it happen. TV and Radio remain relevant as they've managed to continue showcasing the Man/Woman reporting "live" from locales. Over simplification perhaps but in the end it's about being local and relevant, just ask neighborhood/community newspapers that continue to stay in business making money.

5:58 AM  
Blogger scribner said...

If a single editor twenty years ago believed what you just wrote, newspapers would not be moribund today. Now it is way too late for common sense to matter.

8:52 AM  
Blogger Richard Stone said...

I don't know how many times I asked these questions: "Who does this affect? Have we talked to him or her? Why not?"

9:16 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

I love this blog.

10:56 AM  
Blogger Rick Subber said...

Alan, you're singing the old sweet song....too bad the folks who were running newspapers for the last 20 years, and the folks who are running newspapers now, are tone deaf....

5:27 PM  
Blogger Mandy said...

As an advertising consultant - with only 6 years at my current, local, small-town newspaper, I try to discuss very similar topics - not only do they fall on deaf ears, but rejection! It is very frustrating as a person in their mid-30's trying to build a secure future.

I love this blog - thank you!

5:37 AM  

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