Newspapers are missing the point about local news. It isn’t about geography. It isn’t about breadth of coverage. It isn’t even about news. It’s about me.
That’s what has changed. Readers want the news to be about them; to speak to them; to address their questions and concerns directly.
That’s what the Web has taught readers. Broadcast news (which shamelessly promotes itself with campaigns like “your news source” or “we care about you”) has also shaped what people want from their media. Polls such as the annual survey on media credibility by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press indicate that local and national TV news have more credibility than their counterparts in print. TV has become the trusted source. I would argue that one reason is that they know how to be about me.
Unfortunately, newspaper newsrooms don’t get it. And here is something else they don’t get: The biggest changes have to take place in the print edition, not just on the Web. Most newspaper editors try to fix print problems with a redesign, and right now they are more likely to do something radical or unusual. Unfortunately, most redesigns are purely cosmetic and don’t address the underlying issues.
Fixing their relationship with readers will require new approaches to writing, headlines, graphics, photos, refers and layout. And editors need to rethink their whole approach to the Web site, too. This means newsroom workers at all levels have to get in the habit of translating news into stories and visuals that connect with people—and beyond that, create stories and online tools that connect people.
A Different Approach
All of this requires thinking about news in very different ways. A good example is a simple story from one of our client’s papers about a hoof and mouth outbreak at a local school. The reporter found out about this at a school board meeting when the superintendent reported that 40 percent of students were out sick, disrupting classes and lesson plans. This was a big issue in this suburban community.
The original plan: Write a story, quoting the superintendent about the extent of the outbreak and a teacher about how disruptive this was to teaching. A good start, but just a basic story. Readers will give you a grade of “C” if you deliver this version and a breakout box explaining the symptoms of hoof and mouth disease. Now the headline reads, “Epidemic hits local schools.” Not great, but it’s the level most newsrooms would achieve.
“Cutting Staff Results in Less Local Coverage”
– By Bill OstendorfIf I have a child in the local schools, that story is about me. But if my child is in the schools, then I probably already know what the headline tells me. And this is the core problem with most newspapers today—tired approaches to telling old news.
Many editors today would want to take the story further. But how? Where?
Think like readers do, and you can begin to understand that this isn’t a story warning parents who have kids in the schools. Too late for that. It’s really for those people who don’t know about this outbreak yet—those who don’t have kids in the local schools. How can this story be made interesting to them, while at the same time giving parents some new information? In short, how can we make this more about me for a broader audience?
Reporters could talk to parents about how they are dealing with the problem or go to the school and interview the kids who are there about how strange it is to be in a half-empty school. Better. Now we could have headlines such as “Parents battle epidemic by sick-pooling” or “Epidemic has some kids feeling lonely in class.” Parents and kids could all relate to that, even if they aren’t involved with the local schools. And kids feeling lonely at school casts an even wider net, potentially attracting more readers to the story.
Readers would likely give this approach a “B”—adding a plus to the grade if the text block on the specifics of the disease has a headline such as “Are you in danger?” And this hooks others into the package, too, just as having a strong photo of kids in a half empty cafeteria does. Bonus points if links were added online about treatments, the history of the disease, and how it got its name.
How can the story be made even broader? Perhaps by focusing on kids who are home and sick. What is this like? Since parents were helping each other out by sharing kid-sitting duties, and since staying home these days is about video games and watching movies, this gives us potential headlines like “Epidemic shows how much sick days have changed.” A photo might show three kids playing video games or watching a movie together. Now this is a story anyone can relate to. It sure wasn’t like that when I was home sick from school!
Broadening stories until they address more universal themes is one way of getting more stories in the paper about me. We can still report the scope of the epidemic and how seriously it is disrupting the schools, but with this approach people are reading and thinking and talking about what it is like to stay home sick these days.
Readers might grade this effort an “A+” if the Web site, e-mail list, and daily newsletter blast was used to gather information and find students and parents to nail this angle. And extra credit, too, if readers contributed to the story by passing along what they remember about staying home sick from school and their opinions about today’s sick-at-home methods and realities. Want more bonus points? Set up a site for parents and kids to share stories or connect, to exchange movies or find other families willing to split kid-sitting duties.
There are so many places to go with this: Have a contest for photos of the best comfort clothes to be sick in or the best comfort foods that mom makes. Add a doctor or nurse online to answer questions about the disease that evening. Offer to host some videos or lesson plans for teachers.
The next day we could put together a follow-up story about what it is like when adults have to stay home sick from work. What are your comfort foods? What do you do—watch TV, read, go to bed? How do you know when you feel better? What do you think about coworkers who come to work sick? And the following day, the story can be about whether the number of kids and adults calling in sick is going up or down and why. What does that mean to the school budget, or what is it costing businesses? What does it cost, for example, when someone calls in sick?
Now you’re talking about my life. It’s about me.
This is nothing radical, really. Just better and different kinds of storytelling. But most newsrooms would never explore these options or make any of these potentially rich reader connections.
The print edition’s job—our mass medium—is to broaden the story to the widest possible base. The Web site—our niche and interactive medium—does what it does best, which is getting details to those closer to the subject and allowing users to interact with us and each other.
Getting involved and being helpful is a big part of our future as information institutions. Being local these days is not just being a one-way flow of information. It’s about getting information from readers and helping them connect with each other. It’s about fostering communication and community and being a trusted source of information.
While this might sound easy, this transition is very difficult to execute in any real way. That’s partially because there’s a newspaper to put out and that means deadlines to meet. Can’t shut the paper down, go for retraining, and reopen under new ownership a month later. And it’s hard to change your ways when the way you’ve done it gets the paper out on time, which is, after all, the prime directive.
Those who work at newspaper can sometimes be too close to see how off the mark they really are. And that’s why newsrooms can do really dumb things, despite being staffed with really smart, hard-working people. It’s not only about what gets done, but also how it happens and when. Improving newspapers means changing just about everything. It’s depressing. Overwhelming. Where to start?
When we work with newspapers that come to us for guidance, we emphasize that this isn’t about some big change. It’s about hundreds of little changes. And some of them are easy. That’s how we get the ball rolling.
Starting With Small, Significant Changes
Take the breakout box, for example. Readers like them, but newsrooms often produce breakouts that are redundant, dull or otherwise off the mark. And editors always complain that getting them done is like pulling teeth. Most papers don’t feature enough breakouts or the right ones.
In this case, the villain is simply our conventional workflow. Too often reporters don’t even get the message that a breakout is needed until after the story is written. Or, worse, the work is done even later by the copydesk. Even if reporters know they need to create a breakout, they almost always do it last, after writing their story.
An easy fix: Write the breakout boxes first—then write the story. Now, instead of pulling fragments from the story that are redundant or poorly chosen, put the best stuff in the box—numbers, specifics, the essentials. Do this every time. The difference is immediate and dramatic. The story is typically shorter, smoother and easier to write. And the desk or the graphics department get the box first and can do whatever polishing or illustrating they need to do.
This is an important change because we’re now writing in the same order the reader is reading. We know readers read the boxes first, so we’re spending more time on the things that have the highest readership. But doing this can be hard, because newsroom cultures are built around stories and writing. There is nothing wrong with this except that it tends to diminish the use of other storytelling tools.
It’s critical that newsrooms begin devoting a lot more attention to the most highly read items in the paper—photos, captions, breakouts, graphics and headlines. This starts with top management—like having story editors spend time understanding the photo department and figuring out how to make pictures more reader focused. (Photos get the highest readership on almost every page.) Yet photo departments are the most understaffed, misunderstood and undermanaged department in any newsroom.
To serve readers better and to tell stories readers want to read, we’ve got to accept and embrace what readers want and what they read. It’s that simple. And it starts by respecting the readers’ needs more than our own. Monica Moses, former deputy managing editor for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, who led much of that paper’s interesting work with the Readership Institute at Northwestern, put it very clearly: “Interesting is no longer optional.”
Interesting to me, that is.
Bill Ostendorf is president of Creative Circle Media Consulting, www.creativecirclemedia.com, a newspaper design and consulting firm. He has served as a trainer or consultant to more than 250 media firms on three continents and has led more than 400 seminars for industry associations and institutes in 34 countries. He also is founder and CEO of Creative Circle Advertising Solutions, www.adqic.com, which has created Web-based classified, citizen journalism, social networking, and CMS solutions for media companies that include the Chicago Tribune and NBC. He also spent 20 years working in newsrooms in a wide range of management positions.