Friday, September 14, 2007

Future Newspaper Contest

My local newspaper is running a contest ($200 prize) soliciting its readers' views on what newspapers will look like in the next decade. This is my submission. (I don't expect to win.)

A Modest Proposal Regarding
Six Attributes of Successful Newspapers

The beloved tradition of delivering news printed on paper faces huge challenges in the coming decade. The biggest, of course, is Internet competition for readers and advertisers. That competition is pushing print-oriented editors and publishers to identify ways to curb costs, keep and attract advertisers, and use talent and resources wisely while reaching for an increasingly diverse readership. In the years ahead, publishers will be striving daily to connect with a post-modern audience that has thrown over traditional news models to embrace “buzz,” blogs and i-phones.

Clearly, print-based news must change or perish. It’s not enough to expect newspapers of the 21st century to attract staffs of enthusiastic, talented reporters and photographers, or that they nurture literate editors who know the community, love writing and communicating, and are willing to dig to find the story behind the story. Newspapers that survive and thrive will be ones whose management and staff keep their eyes simultaneously on both the bottom line and the horizon.

To do that, savvy publishers have already set their sails for a course aimed toward a new kind of journalism. Papers that wish to survive will be wise to follow in their wake. To help, we have identified six attributes of community newspapers that are growing in a shrinking market and present them here.

1. Tear Down The Wall
First and most important, the inconvenient wall separating news and editorial from advertising must be eliminated. For example, when newspaper revenue relies heavily on real-estate advertising, savvy publishers recruit local real-estate agents to write columns about the industry from which they profit. The time and cost of vetting their reports for bias and self-interest are outdated and unprofitable expenses.

Even better, whenever a newspaper staffer moonlights at another job, say as a boxing-match promoter, he or she is encouraged to promote and sell the product in weekly columns leading up to the event from which he hopes to turn a profit. The generous publisher creates that much-desired family atmosphere when staff can use news columns for self-promotion.

As an extension of this effort, savvy publishers assemble special sections devoted to special topics. Always popular with the burgeoning market of aging baby boomers is health and fitness news divorced from medical overview. A dedicated tab can attract both advertising and editorial content written by chiropractors, personal trainers and aroma therapists, to name just a few of the disenfranchised who lurk at the distant periphery of science and appreciate the patina of a news-like endorsement to gild their wares. The best part for publishers is that these practitioners are happy to both buy ads and write free content.

2. Protect the Status Quo
Successful newspapers cater to entrenched mores and morals by turning over news space at least once a week to faith-based writers. Leaders of fundamentalist and evangelistic sects are key to promulgating “Us vs. Them” mindsets. Their Saturday sermons help stem the dangerous tide of rational analysis and science-based thinking while overtly soliciting converts.

Along the same lines, successful publishers print readers’ letters without the inconvenience of fact checking or vetting for libel, logic and spelling. Publishers looking to the future know the importance of printing manifestos about creationism, abortion, race, and global warming regardless of a letter writer’s ability to support an argument beyond ad hominem attacks. When readers vent, publishers and editors alike can feel good about appearing to air “both sides” of a complex issue. After all, newspapers are “black and white,” and the world should be too.

3. Print More Good News
Because many readers crave “good news,” the decade’s savviest editors fill their front pages with stories like: “7th grade science class builds ramp: Demonstrates gravity,” “Local man puts roof on garage,” and “Police crack down on speeders.” Less-than-happy news should be limited to, for example, inspirational stories about tots with rare diseases. Faced with slow-news days, daring publishers reiterate scare stories about shark attacks, the imminent arrival of Asian viruses and killer-bee invasions.

Related to the good-news-is-the-best-news policy, publishers meeting the challenge of the future have shed the burden of printing a separate lifestyle, features and soft-news section. They’ve eliminated the expense of thoughtful book reviews, music and film criticism while retaining nonsensical horoscopes and inexpensive puzzle subscriptions. To retain the appearance of covering important people doing significant things, they sprinkle daily reports of celebrity sightings throughout the main news section.

Hand in hand with these efforts, successful newspapers try their best to confine national and international news to a digest running down an inside left rail: three inches for the Middle East, three inches for Asia – giving priority to buses careening off cliffs in India – and another three inches for Africa, where reports hit hard on Nigerian money scams. It’s no longer necessary to have wire-photos and captions matching a story, or to spell foreign and unusual names consistently because the publishers have educated readers to believe their contracts forbid editing or questioning wire-service copy.

4. Simplify Reporting; Homogenize Staff
The newspaper people best equipped to thrive in the coming decade understand reporters and photographers are “content generators.” This eliminates the need to pay for college-level training followed by apprenticeships under the watchful eye of seasoned city editors. The reporters most in demand cover local boards and regional governments by retyping prepared agendas for publication the day before a meeting and running sanitized versions of official minutes the day after. If a controversy arises, efficient reporters word-process a simple “he-said, she-said” story without wasting time investigating background, rounding up analyses, or writing a weekend follow-up. And if a police-beat reporter should describe a suspect’s arrest, it’s a time- and space-waster to report the outcome of the charges.

Columnists greatly simplify the opinion part of the business by writing about their own spouses and children, comfortable that their lives mirror those of their readers. This avoids the expense and discomfort of leaving the newsroom. When a columnist’s home-grown topics run out, he or she can still hold down costs by running “10-best” lists and short takes along the lines of “You’re Southern if you...,” topics easily culled and localized from amateur Web sites. In fact, local columnists have already broken new ground in this area by devoting dozens of column inches to enterprising examinations of eyebrow waxing and paeons to pets, ancestors and compact cars.

Many of today’s newspapers are addressing issues that affect Hispanic, African American, and American Muslim communities by skilled staffers who are knowledgeable about cross-cultural communities. The downside is it’s expensive to hire talented minorities, who enjoy great demand for their presence in newsrooms. Publishers who find it difficult and expensive to recruit and hire Black, Asian and Hispanic writers save themselves money and unnecessary controversy by giving themselves a pass when it comes to reporting on communities of color.

5. Exploit Free Information
The newspaper of the future will welcome prepared news releases from public-relations professionals. The publisher who encourages reporters to put their own bylines on submitted material never encounters an unhappy source. Another way to mine the same material is to award the public-relations writer a reporter-like byline, delivering an ego boost instead of a writing fee.

A real cost-saver is making sure reporters use vendor-supplied tickets, accept complimentary meals and use press passes to enter sporting events, parks, museums and concerts. Readers don’t really care, or even need to know, that a reporter’s glowing report stems from bargains and freebies not offered to the general public.

6. Repeat Important Stuff
Any newspaper worth its salt regularly trumpets the plaques it receives from membership-only competitions based on self-selected clips. Publishers should remind readers that the newspaper they read enters scores of such competitions and in years long gone has even been an also-ran in a few of them.

Assigning editors should rely on calendars of special-interest months to generate three-part series on heart disease and Elvis Presley’s birthday, for example. Canny publishers know if the paper did the same story last year (or last month) it saves time and money by not having to generate new ideas.

In Conclusion
Journalists hold the one job in America specifically protected by the U.S. Constitution. The time has come to retire the old saw about “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable” and follow William R. Hearst’s observation that the power of the press profits the man who owns one. It’s only fitting that newspapers use the coming decade to institute these six modest proposals which have proven profitable and effective at a local newspaper in the avant garde of the new New Journalism.

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