Some newspapers need a lot more ‘news’
February 25, 2016
By Peter W. Wagner
Iowa Information Inc. | Sheldon, IA
Not all newspapers are dead, and the printed newspaper business is not doomed. However, many editors and publishers, hearing that the proverbial “sky is falling,” have hurt the industry by cutting content, the news hole and subsequently, the value to the subscribers. Instead, they should have increased interest with more local content.
Newspapers remain the one necessary media in their community. Newspapers provide the important, uniquely exclusive role of serving as a community’s fact checker, cheerleader and creator of consensus.
Too many pundits put local and metro papers in the same category, but the locally-owned, hometown community paper has the advantage. Metro papers have traditionally depended on their wire services and national news to fill their pages. That made sense when the afternoon daily was the only source of current war news, Washington happenings, National League updates and the stock market reports.
Now most of that information is available 24/7 on the cable news channels, on one’s computer, on social media and on satellite radio.
Local news and human feature stories, meanwhile, can be elusive in metro markets. Attempting to please a metro area that sometimes covers hundreds of square miles, it can be difficult to track down sufficient inches of local interest news and features to satisfy that subscriber base.
IT’S ALL ABOUT CONTENT
Community newspapers, however, filled with well-crafted stories about local issues, school sports and activities, a strong editorial page, interesting personality features and local ads can still attract and keep a large audience. There’s a huge difference between local news coverage in community papers and big city dailies. It’s summed up in local names, stories and hard work.
Local newspapers do more than just report on the latest city council meeting or who had tea with whom. The exceptional ones, those making money, provide much needed services to the community: They inform but they also entertain. They write local history and provide keepsakes for the refrigerator door.
Local newspapers are the community’s cheerleader. They explain big ideas and help the reader understand the reason something should or should not change in their respective communities. They share information that helps lead the way for ideas and projects.
Most important of all, local community newspapers educate. They update the reader on the proposed cost of an upcoming street project, the winning play at last Friday’s high school football game, the appointment of a new minister at the Methodist Church, what’s playing at the hometown movie house and the price of fresh strawberries at the town’s supermarket.
“I keep telling my readers and customers,” Matt Paxton, publisher of the Lexington (VA) News-Gazette, once told me, “that they should not include the News-Gazette as a part of that failing group of a few metro newspapers they keep hearing about.”
SECRETS FOR REACHING
The name of the game is “reaching readers.” In today’s fast-paced culture, that means providing subscribers tighter, shorter, better written stories presented on imaginatively designed pages.
It means stepping away from the inverted pyramid story style to make the stories enticing and fun to read. Today’s population wants immediate gratification, and they aren’t willing to plow thorough 40 inches of body copy to capture the essence of the story.
Ask former and current subscribers in your community what upsets them about your newspaper and newspapers in general, and this is what you’ll hear:
• Today’s newspapers lack a sense of passion. Too many articles are cliché-loaded and nothing more than coldly reported facts. Good reporting, they’ll tell you, includes solid research, great insight and heartfelt storytelling.
• There are two types of stories: hard news and features. Today’s editors don’t understand the difference between a hard news story and a feature story. A great paper needs both. The first might be the report on the latest city council meeting. The second is a story about a child in a wheelchair playing peewee basketball.
• Many youthful and even some older readers think newspapers have become boring and too set in their ways. Readers want tidbits and insights they can use to start a conversation at the water cooler. That’s why the police report is always well read in any paper.
The trick is to find those stories that encourage conversation but are often missed by even the most experienced reporter. My son, Jay P. Wagner, one-time editor of our N’West Iowa REVIEW and later a reporter for two daily newspapers, often shared these story-finding ideas with rookie reporters:
1. Read your newspaper’s classified ads. You’ll be surprised by what you’ll find that will lead to a great story.
2. Pay special attention to what is discussed before and after the council, school board or county supervisor meeting. Some of the best story ideas pop up outside of the official discussion.
3. Take time to check out the local school newspaper, church bulletin, business mailings and e-mails, and club and organization newsletters you come across. You’ll be rewarded with news stories worth reporting, plus some unique personality features.
4. Join the local business leaders who meet for coffee weekday mornings. Say little and keep your ears open. You’ll hear about what is really going on in the community.
5. Drive to work along a different route every morning. It is the best way to stay on top of new construction, destruction, development and unrest.
6. Make sure you are always accessible. Provide after-hour contact information to all key sources, such as the fire department and local and county law enforcement agencies.
SECRETS OF DESIGN
Readers have a short attention span. Even the best writing has to be presented in an interesting way with multiple points of entry. These include large, interesting photos with cutlines that include unique additional information, well-honed headlines and subheads, quote boxes, stat boxes, sidebars and graphics.
Remember, there are many ways to share a story. We live in a hectic, busy world with limited time for all the learning and entertainment activities available to us. Not every story has to be long to be good. Shorter can often be better. Use illustrations, graphics, photos and other design elements to share additional details.
But most of all, get out of the office and experience life in your city. Chuck Palahniuk, author and freelance journalist, offers this suggestion: “Have your adventures, make your mistakes and choose your friends poorly—all these make for great stories.”
We all depend on each other to improve the future of newspapers. Every great newspaper with lively, comprehensive local content lifts the entire industry. Only the local newspaper can create a real sense of community and consensus. The local newspaper is the only broadcaster in town. Radio stations have become narrowcasters with limited impact on only the audience their musical formats attracts. TV has become fractured with more than 100 channels splitting the audience into small demographic groups.
Newspapers have to remain true to their calling. Only the hometown newspaper continues to reach the broad market with quality content that the subscriber wants and needs. © Peter Wagner 2016
Peter W. Wagner is founder and publisher of The N’West Iowa REVIEW, which has been selected NNA’s General Excellence winner 17 times in its circulation class. The material in this article was taken, in part, from his “Mind Your p’s and q’s” publishing seminar currently being presented at various newspaper association conventions and group meetings. Peter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 712-348-3550.