Dear newspapers: You’re doing it all wrong

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.

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5 Responses to Dear newspapers: You’re doing it all wrong

  1. Josh says:

    You may have noticed (or you may have skipped it) that I wrote two (well, three, but two, really) entries on that blog and gave up on it.

    No evolving business is going to survive without doing the customer focus thing — that’s where I disagree with you — but you’re right: if you’re going to ask, you have to listen to the answers and implement changes.

    I know what I want from my newspaper. I’ll give you a hint: I don’t need an A-1 spread on another Christmas tree lighting. What I really want is local enterprise reporting; I get my national and international news primarily from national sources. The point of asking you is, you’re not buying our paper — what would make you do that?

    In the interest of professionalism (as you know, I work for the website, and as such work alongside the paper), I won’t discuss your other points here (that’s probably a hint where I stand), but I hear there are places in town where people gather to drink refreshing beverages and talk about things like this.

    • asciidan says:

      First, please don’t think I was calling you or your post out. It may seem unfair that I pointed specifically to your blog; I remembered your post and my head was burning with opinions. I tip my cap for the inspiration and indulgence. It is appreciated.

      It’s a good idea to listen to readers (and non-readers), but your second point undermines your first. The average reader is exactly why there’s a tree-lighting ceremony on the front page of my paper this morning. No self-respecting journalist would have made that decision. A lazy one, perhaps, but not one dedicated to journalism’s cause, as I have been and I hope you are.

      You and I both know what would have happened had that tree lighting appeared on A-9. I read the Sunday “Feedback” column. The opinions of your readers are so diverse and so at odds that they’re nearly useless…this guy wants more national stories, this guy wants none. This guy likes X comic, this guy thinks comics are a waste of time. So, yeah, you listen. But you have to realize that you’ll only ever hear from the most vocal 2 percent, and they don’t speak for everyone. You develop your personality on your own.

      Does Wolf Blitzer ask what color tie he should wear, or whether he smiles enough? Nope. The news makeup of a newspaper IS its personality. People need to know what to expect of it, and dammit, if it’s MY local paper, it had better be serious, enterprising, thorough and vigilant.

      Be the authority by setting the tone. If you let your readers set the tone, the paper will be filled with lolcats and monk shots.

  2. Josh says:

    I know you weren’t calling me/my post out so much (if you were, you would have gotten it wrong; I don’t work for the newspaper and have no say in their editorial process — I’m genuinely interested in what people want from their newspapers).

    The real problem with asking the question, “What do you want from your newspaper?” and getting an answer, is that too many reader surveys stop there.

    If I ask what you want from the paper, and you say you want more national news, I should be ready with a follow-up question: What should I take out to put more national news in? And a conversation needs to ensue.

    One of the things Chris Hughes said when he was in town makes a lot of sense to me. More and more we’re relying on our chosen network of people to filter our news for us. This, he said, increases relevancy but decreases diversity. What your local newspaper can do is (a) offer a diversity of viewpoints and experiences [mine] and (b) offer a truth filter [his].

    I’ve been sitting in a local cafe for about 3 hours now. I’ve seen a dozen people come in, and two have read the Sunday edition of the daily paper, one spending about 40 minutes with it, the other is at 90 minutes and still going. So, for at least some people, the newspaper is highly relevant. This is a group of people we would need to include — “This group of people who doesn’t read the paper says they would read it more if it did this, this and this; would that drive you, our highly engaged reader, away?”

    And you know what? If a reader’s photo of a dog in a Santa hat will get more people to pick up the paper and potentially read a story about a local police chief stepping down, fine — as long as that story about the chief stepping down examines the truth around the resignation and discusses the consequences for the community, I’ll happily have my eyes polluted by the dog in the Santa hat.

    It’s when the dog in the Santa hat shortens that police chief story to “citing that he wants to spend more time with his family” that I stop picking up the paper.

  3. I should probably add a few thoughts here too. I think the Future News blog has been dealing with industrywide issues and digital world punditry, a chance to play Jeff Jarvis once in a while, I confess — or the anti-Jarvis as the case may be. I always thought it might feel a little out of place in a local context, unless by local you mean the Newhouse School and Central New York’s wealth of academia. But Josh’s efforts were definitely worth a try.

    It’s interesting that you bring up the Sunday Feedback column, Dan. I was just imagining what it would be like to have that features online with readers talking directly to The Post-Standard. You’re right that readers’ wants are all over the place. Bloggers have the luxury of targeting one theme and doing it one way.

    I can also expect bloggers to come down hard on the local newspaper sometimes. They’d be doing it wrong if they didn’t. The local loggers I most admire have all had their “What was the newspaper thinking?” posts.

  4. asciidan says:

    Josh, Brian:

    Thanks for your thoughtful and thought-provoking comments. It dawned on me as I read them, and looked back at my post, that my lead-in reads as though I’m specifically talking about your organization. I’m not. I’m speaking generally about the industry, and meant to use Josh’s Future News post as an example. I failed to add the graf about how his post got me thinking about the sins of the industry in general… so again, please don’t take my comments as me simply coming down on my local newspaper; though many of my points can apply to your organization, they weren’t meant to apply ONLY to your organization.

    I think the most important point is that newspapers have lost the personality — and authority — that made them so appealing through most of their early days. You can’t crowdsource those things. In fact, the mantra of objective journalism is fairly recent as it pertains to newspapers, and the attempt at objectivity has stripped a good deal of personality from news pages.

    The idea that people only read blogs because they’re instantaneous is oversimplifying the issue and, I would argue, is off base. Blogs allow themselves more personality — more to love and hate. Do you read Tech Crunch? There are few punches pulled there…

    You don’t crowdsource your editorials; you write based on what your editorial board deems is best for the community, using informed and reasoned logic. I’m suggesting that you trust yourself that much in every editorial judgment. Allow your readers to love and hate you for the strong, independent voice of the community you can be. Earn respect by being a leader — not a follower.

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