What readers want

August 1, 2015

By Ed Henninger
Design Elements 

I’ve been a newspaper consultant for more than 25 years. In all that time, my basic message has not changed. That’s because I believe the message we get from readers has not changed.

Many readers aren’t shy about letting us know what they want:

Sequencing: Readers want to be able to find items in the same place from issue to issue. Are your obits on Page 5 today? Will they be there again in the next issue? How about two weeks from now? Don’t lead your readers on an Easter egg hunt. Eventually, they’ll tire of that—and your newspaper.

Shorter stories: Always search for ways to write tighter. And for those stories that need some length, look for ways to segment them into smaller pieces. A story about five candidates for mayor can easily be broken into five separate, shorter pieces. Readers will appreciate your effort to do that.

Briefs: The briefer, the better. If you can round up some county news into a column of briefs, readers will almost surely spend more time with them than they would a longer county story with “in other business” items near the end. Readers aren’t lazy, but they see briefs as something they can scan quickly. And their time is valuable.

Visuals: Give photos and other visual elements some real size. Sorry, but an index card-size photo on a nearly open page just isn’t gonna cut it. For a vertical photo, I advise at least three columns wide by eight inches deep. For a horizontal shot, I’d run it at least four columns wide by six inches deep. Those are minimums if you want the photo—or other visual—to have impact.

Points of Entry: Headlines, subheads, photos, graphics—even mug shots and pull quotes—all serve as points of entry into a page. All of these display items need to be given attention.

Better headlines: Nothing kills reader interest more quickly than a poorly written headline. I remember sitting on a news desk years ago when one of my fellow copy editors wrote a headline that read: “Developments made known.” Huh? You could place that headline on a bajillion different stories and it would still impart no information. None. “Four killed in highway crash” has much less meaning than “Mom, 3 tots killed in crash.”

Packaging: Use page structure, spacing and rules to carve off one package (visual, headline, text, other) on the page from others. Your design should clearly indicate to readers that elements a, b and c go together, but not d, k and n.

Modular design: It’s a basic of good design, and readers expect it. They want a package that’s rectangular, without doglegs. They’re forgiving, of course, if you have to run a package around stair-stepped ads at the bottom of the page. But it’s the designer’s task to look for and identify those areas on a page where a story can be given modular treatment.

Records: Part of the foundation of community newspapers is records copy. Police and fire runs, ambulance calls, births, engagements and the like all need to be reported thoroughly and packaged in a matter that makes them easy to read.

Inclusion: It’s not something you can design into your newspaper, but including readers in the processes of your newspaper is a great way to build community trust and support in what you do. Readers want to feel that they are a part of what you do and that they can come to you with suggestions, ideas and criticisms. After all, they feel that it’s their newspaper—but they’re just letting you run things for a while. Want a free evaluation of your newspaper’s design? Just contact me at edh@henningerconsulting.com or at 803-327-3322.

If this column has been helpful, you may be interested in my books, “Henninger on Design” and “101 Henninger Helpful Hints.” With the help of my books, you’ll have a better idea how to design for your readers. Find out more at www.henningerconsulting.com. © Ed Henninger 2015


ED HENNINGER is an independent newspaper consultant and the director of Henninger Consulting. On the Web: henningerconsulting.com. Phone: 803-327-3322.

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