Dear newspapers: You’re doing it all wrong

November 28, 2009

My local newspaper (or, more correctly, the website associated with the local newspaper) recently put out a call for reader input. How, the bloggers asked, can we make the newspaper better? How can we bring you back? How are we doing?

You can see the suggestions here (hint: though the article was posted a month and a half ago, there’s not a single response).

I like to help and I do still hold a place for newspapers in my heart. So here are my suggestions and observations:

1. Stop asking me how to run your newspaper.
I’m a reader. I’m not I’m paid to run your newspaper; you are.

These pleas for public comment have been going out for years, especially as newspapers began to see their readership numbers decline. In my years in newspapering I was guilty of making similar overtures. The idea, of course, is that it makes the paper look like it cares what readers think — that it allows readers a greater stake in the newspaper. It doesn’t.

Instead, it makes newspapers look pathetic and lost. It makes them look rudderless and incapable of solid decision-making. You are supposed to be an organization of trained journalists. Don’t whine and beg readers to make your decisions for you. If you do, you undermine your authority, and your readers’ trust in you.

Speaking of undermining your authority…

2. Stop dumbing down your design.
There’s a reason everyone wears jackets and ties on TV news: Authority.

If new anchors wore T-shirts and jeans, you wouldn’t look up to them, would you? So why have all our newspapers gone from the stately, authoritative nameplates and designs to T-shirt and jeans equivalents? When I started in the newspaper business, the big metro daily’s flag screamed authority, in stately capital letters that demanded respect. The last two redesigns have reduced that nameplate, first to a friendlier font with lower-case letters and now, well, it’s become just initials, tucked away into the top left-hand corner.

Beyond that, the paper has moved to more digest items, fewer long-form stories, bigger photos, and all the little things readers have said they wanted for years. Guess what? It ain’t working.

3. Stop trying to prove you’re cool.
I’m glad you’re on Twitter. For me, the easiest, fastest way to catch up on the news of the day is to follow news outlets I trust, grab their headlines in my Twitter feed, and hit up the stories I’m interested in. So that’s working for you.

What doesn’t work are the news stories about Twitter, the constant references to your Twitter feeds in the newspaper, quoting Twitter feeds in the newspaper. It wastes valuable newsprint and it alienates readers who aren’t on Twitter — and that’s the majority of your readers. In fact, it’s more than 80 percent of your readers.

Speaking of Twitter…

4. Stop cluttering your Twitter feed with stories you didn’t write.
I don’t follow you for world and national news.

The Associated Press is a great resource for newspapers, if used properly. A good newspaper will include bits of world and national news of importance, and local writers and papers are just not equipped to cover that stuff. But national stories do not belong on local news websites unless they’ve been localized. I get my national news from sources with the resources to cover those stories. I follow them on Twitter, or I visit them daily. Including such stories on your websites and feeding them to Twitter waters down your strength, which should be covering local news.

The same really should go for the newspaper as well. More care needs to be put into what wire stories are chosen for the print editions, and in every possible case, those wire stories should be localized. If there’s not a local angle, why put it in the local paper?

I am a fan of newspapers. I spend every Saturday and Sunday morning with mine. And every weekend, I struggle with whether I will continue my subscription. As the quality of local coverage drops, the paper’s usefulness declines as well.

Unfortunately, nearly everything they’ve done to bring readers back drives readers the other way.

So maybe they really do need help.

Cuz it’s almost too late.