Print what your readers need to know

June 5, 2012

By Ken Blum

How does your paper stack up in terms of content that informs, entertains and captivates?
Let’s look at content from this angle. The following are five areas of content I would like to see less of in today’s hometown papers, followed by five I would like to see more of.

You need fewer of these types of stories
1. Cutesy soft features on the front page.
For example, a class activity at a local elementary school, a couple who took a trip to China, a senior citizen who likes to grow giant cabbages.
For the most part, these stories are yawners that belong on the inside pages, if at all.
News is why people buy your paper; and news is priority-one on the front page. If a feature story appears on the front page, it should pack drama, punch and/or a ton of local significance. Too many front pages today are bland.
2. A picture with 20 people staring at the camera.
A group picture with lots of local faces is deemed acceptable in a hometown paper, but not when there are a dozen or more faces with a cutline that makes identifying them about as easy as picking out a specific goose in a flock of geese.
3. Crossword and other types of puzzles with no solution on another page.
Who wants to spend the time on these games without knowing how well you did?—now, not tomorrow or a week from now.
4. Columns that deal with state or national topics.
There are exceptions when the column has a definite local tie-in, say “fracking” for natural gas when these wells are being drilled in the area the paper serves. In general, however, state or national commentary may or may not be interesting, but it doesn’t fit with a hometown newspaper’s mission.
5. Dead leads.
“Council met Monday night, May 14 at city hall with all members in attendance. On the agenda were street repair projects and stray dogs and cats.” I see these vignettes of total boredom too often.

You need more of these
Types of stories
1. Commentary about important local issues.
Many hometown papers feature outstanding local editorials and columns, but too many others shy away from any printed opinion that could ruffle feathers. Local commentary is not only a public service but a responsibility.
2. Letters to the editor.
Show me a paper with solid circulation, and I’ll show you a paper with an interesting mix of letters to the editor. Keep in mind, the number of letters is about momentum—the more you have, the more you’ll get. They need to be promoted, encouraged and, if necessary, even solicited.
3. Detailed obituaries not buried in a graveyard of tiny type and name-only headlines.
Obits are the best-read section of a local paper. Detailed obits (paid or not) should be encouraged along with photos and headlines that include more than the name, age and hometown of the deceased. Every individual deserves a salutary headline that will increase readership, i.e. “Mary Hueber, 77, mother of seven children.”
4. Public record news.
This data, although not a thrill to gather, will always grade out as a best-read section. Most papers should expand categories to include information such as divorces and dissolutions, wedding licenses, real estate transfers, police logs, fire and emergency squad calls and civil lawsuits.
5. News of economic/business trends in the community.
There’s not enough of it in most local papers. Some newspapers almost seem to have a prejudice against local economic/business news, taking an attitude, “if it’s about business, it’s advertising.”
Not so. If it’s about business, it has everything to do with a community’s ability to thrive, or barely survive.
Until next month …. © Ken Blum 2012

Ken Blum is the publisher of Butterfly Publications, an advising/speaking/publishing business dedicated to improving the profitability and quality of community newspapers. He puts out a free e-mail newsletter 40 times a year titled Black Inklings. It features nuts and bolts ideas to improve revenue and profits at hometown papers. To subscribe to the newsletter or contact Ken, e-mail him at; or phone to 330-682-3416.

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