The goal is to sell more newspapers. It's as simple as that. But most editors and publishers can't even bring themselves to say the words.
Accuse an editor of trying to sell more newspapers and he'll deny it. Or listen (as I did last week) to a publisher describe the desired outcome for his upcoming redesign:
• Better packaging
• More excitement
• A fresh, contemporary look
• Reflect the community
Conspicuous by its absence is the phrase “sell more newspapers.” I wasn't going to put words in his mouth, but how can a publisher expect to sell more newspapers if he can't even say the words? And more importantly, how can we can expect reporters and all newspaper employees to help us sell more papers if they don't understand that selling more papers is our goal?
Key: If you want to sell more newspapers, start by saying the words.
2. Look beyond your silo
Newspapers consist of departments – editorial, advertising, circulation, production, etc. – that often act independently while claiming allegiance to the same goal. This independence is counter-productive, particularly when it comes to selling more newspapers.
Traditionally, newspapers have invested most of their effort – and responsibility – with the newsroom when they wanted to increase readership. But a newspaper is more than the editorial product. Answer these questions to learn what drives readers:
Q: The number one reason people cite for not subscribing is: A: No time to read.
That was a gimme – 0 points for a correct answer. Now try this one:
Q: The number two reason people cite for not subscribing is: A: Service
Bet you didn't know that – most journalists don't.
So what, you say. What's service got to do with the newsroom? Lots.
In many markets, people don't subscribe because we can't get the paper on their doorstep before they leave for work. In some cases, they'd subscribe if we could get the paper to them just 15 minutes sooner. An editor committed to selling more newspapers would be motivated to cut 15 minutes off his deadline. Would the editorial product be compromised? Maybe. Would this trade-off be worth it? I guess that depends upon how much you want to sell more newspapers.
Here are a couple more questions and answers to ponder:
Q: The number one driver of Sunday readership is A: Advertising – in the form of free-standing inserts from big box stores like Best Buy, Circuit City, etc.
The research shows that a 200-inch story about the vanishing white rhino or a seven-part series about the latest scourge to affect the community is not driving Sunday sales. Are these stories important and should we continue to publish them? Absolutely. But we'll sell more newspapers when we pursue strategies based on consumer behavior.
Q: The top drivers of daily readership typically are:
1. Local news
2. Local sports
Classifieds have nothing to do with editorial but should figure prominently in any effort to sell more newspapers. How can a newsroom use classifieds to help increase circulation? By following the lead of The Bakersfield Californian and the Republican-American in Waterbury, Conn.
These papers are led by two courageous editors – Mike Jenner in Bakersfield and Jon Kellogg in Waterbury – who are focused on the goal of selling more newspapers. Mike and Jon understood that classifieds could help them sell more papers. But it would require a dedicated section and a color front every day to make classifieds a more prominent part of the paper.
This before-and-after shows how color improved the classifieds in Bakersfield:
Making this happen meant making sacrifices – in editorial color positions, deadlines and cost. But these editors made the sacrifices and championed the classified cause because they were focused on the goal of selling more newspapers and saw classifieds as a means to that end.
Here are the redesigned advertising real estate sections from Bakersfield and Waterbury:
These sacrifices have already paid off – stops are down at The Californian. And the paper has never been so profitable, with a thousand new inches of advertising in their real estate tab alone. Their "really radical redesign" earned them a spot on Editor & Publisher's list of "Ten That Do It Right." In Waterbury, revenue is up 7.1% despite a double-digit downturn in auto contract display.
Key: Newspapers must tap the collective resources of every department and each department must share its resources to sell more papers.
3. Do the research
For the most part, newspapers have always depended upon their editors to decide what is best for readers. They've resisted doing research because they didn't trust the results or didn't want to spend money without knowing what they were going to learn.
This scenario is flawed for three reasons:
a) Newsrooms are inaccurate reflections of the communities they serve. Overall, journalists are younger, whiter, better-educated and better-paid than their readers. Without research, newsrooms aren't likely to know their readers very well.
b) Newsrooms have been reluctant to use research because they don't like the results. In most cases, research shows that the preferences of readers don't match those of the journalists who claim to serve them. And journalists don't like to hear that.
But don't take my word for it. Ask your readers how much they care about the crossword puzzle, the comics or the obits. Then ask your reporters the same question.
c) Publishers have been reluctant to pay for research without knowing in advance what they'll learn. This position defies logic. If a researcher could tell a publisher what he or she was about to learn, there would be no need to conduct the research. Newspapers need to invest in research without a guarantee. It's the only way they can find out what they don't know.
Here are two examples of newspapers that changed their front pages based on research that defied conventional wisdom:
From focus groups in Bakersfield, we learned that readers were skipping the front page. As difficult as this was for us to believe, we heard this too many times from too many readers to deny. We had to believe them because they told us why they skipped the front page, and their reasons made sense.
How did we respond? By transforming the front page from dull to dramatic, with more compelling content selection, presentation, headline writing, use of color and typography, more emphasis on local news and shorter stories. The images below show a published front page and a prototype page based on the same day's content.
From focus groups in Waterbury we learned that readers cared as much about pro sports as they did about local sports. This is not the case in most cities – particularly those that don't host any pro franchises.
What makes Waterbury different? Geography. Waterbury is roughly halfway between New York and Boston. The Yankees and the Red Sox. The Knicks and the Celtics. Football and hockey. Need I say more?
Waterbury has an embarrassment of riches. Instead of following one city's pro franchises, they follow two – with two of the most diehard groups of fans.
How did we respond? By creating a large, above-the-fold promotional panel for three different pro sports stories with three tightly cropped photos. This replaced the "skybox" style promos that had far less impact.
These examples make a strong case for the usefulness of research. Unfortunately, all research is not as good and useful. Here are three pitfalls to avoid:
You gotta ask the right questions. Currently, I'm working with an editor to help her boost circulation. She competes head-to-head with two other papers. I told her we needed research to help us. She assured me that she had plenty.
And she did.
And after reviewing hundreds of Powerpoint slides I knew the who, the what, the when and the where of newspaper buyers in her market. But I didn't know why – why did someone choose one paper over the other? If I knew that, I'd be in a better position to help her. Unfortunately, the well-known firm that conducted her research never bothered to ask the "why" question in a meaningful way.
But fortunately, she's a great editor who is passionate about journalism, who wants to sell more newspapers and who knows the value of research. So we did the research to get the data we needed.
You gotta ask the questions the right way. If you don't, your survey may merely reinforce the beliefs of the sponsor.
Newsrooms – and journalism prize juries – love investigative stories. An editor seeking more support for this kind of reporting might sponsor a survey that asks readers, "Do you believe investigative journalism is important?" Readers aren't stupid – they've seen investigative journalists glamorized in movies and on TV – so they'll affirm the editor's belief.
But readers aren't likely to mention investigative reporting in answer to this question: "What's most important to you about the newspaper?" Chances are, the crossword puzzle is more important to them than investigative journalism.
Research can help us sell newspapers, but only if it is conducted with that goal in mind.
Research can be statistically accurate and totally meaningless. I began my redesign of the Californian by reading hundreds of pages of research from a company with many years of newspaper experience. I'm sure it was conducted with utmost care, but it did not prepare me or the management in Bakersfield for what we learned from focus groups – readers routinely skipped the front page.
Even the most carefully crafted survey can miss such an important piece of data because surveys don't allow the researcher to ask follow-up questions about reader preference and behavior. Quantitative research, such as surveys, can be statistically accurate but often miss the emotional connection readers have with newspapers that only qualitative research (focus groups) can uncover.
Newspapers should conduct both quantitative and qualitative studies to get the most accurate and useful data.
KEY – Only research can teach us what we don't know, but it must be conducted carefully to be useful.
4. Change the product
Oh, if it was only that simple! Changing the product is child's play compared to changing the mindset of the editors who control it.
Tell me if you've heard this before: "We cannot sell more newspapers without making significant changes, but we cannot make significant changes that offend our loyal readers."
Sound familiar? If you haven't said it, I bet you know an editor who has.
I believe almost every editor fears change, because once in his or her career, each editor changed a TV book – and got hammered with complaints. From this experience editors learn that change brings complaints and they don't want complaints. Can you blame them?
I can – for being short-sighted.
TV books are one example of "static content." Other examples include the comics, the puzzles, the obits, etc. Change any one of them and you're sure to get complaints. Here's why:
Static content is used habitually, and like all humans, readers are creatures of habit who don't like their routines altered. Mess with this stuff and you rock their world. Then they rock yours.
Ironically, static content is not the important stuff – the dynamic news content – that editors care about. Yet these bad experiences with static content paralyze editors when it comes to changing the stuff that might increase readership.
There is no need to fear change. Bakersfield's redesign is arguably the most transformative of any in recent memory. Even Editor & Publisher called it "really, really radical." And it was undertaken in a very conservative market - "the reddest spot in the bluest state."
If the conventional wisdom held true – that readers hate change – then by any measure, Bakersfield should have suffered thousands of stops.
Instead, there were only 16 stops out of more than 54,000 subscribers. As an industry, we underestimate the loyalty of our subscribers. They will tolerate change - even radical change - if it is a change for the better.
But you can't please everybody. And some complaints are inevitable. Answer this question to find your comfort zone:
Q. Would you tolerate complaints from 1% of your readers in order to introduce changes that could help you sell more newspapers?
A. Sure, I hear you say.
OK. Let's do the math:
Pretend you're the editor of a typical American newspaper.
• The median-size daily newspaper sells 30,000 copies.
• The typical newspaper has 2.5 readers per copy.
• So the typical newspaper has 75,000 readers.
• And complaints from 1% of those readers is 750 complaints.
Q. Would you tolerate 750 complaints?
Q. Have you ever received 750 complaints?
I bet your answers are "No" and "Hell no."
Here's my point: We all know we need to make big changes but most editors aren't willing to risk even the smallest measure of criticism. They cling to the belief that loyal readers will get angry and desert them if they make significant changes, even while they admit anything less is meaningless.
KEY – Real world experience shows that change – even radical change – will not scare off loyal readers.
5. Update the news paradigm
The current paradigm that guides news judgment is the same as it ever was – the most important news is what matters most – and it deserves the best play on the most important pages.
Our news judgment has barely changed, but everything else has. The Internet has been as transformative as Gutenberg, yet we continue to publish as if we're the exclusive source of news. Most editors won't admit it, but their front pages seems to say, "Until we print it, it hasn't happened."
We need to adopt a new paradigm for news because the most important news is likely to be reported on TV, radio or the Internet long before we can deliver our version. Important news has its place, but so does news that's compelling, relevant and interesting.
We're not losing readers because we're failing to deliver important information. If anything, we're losing readers because we're too focused on what's important to the exclusion of news that matters to them – what the StarTribune in Minneapolis calls "the experience newspaper."
I'll have more to say about Minneapolis later, but for now, I'll use some pages from Bakersfield's redesign to contrast a news paradigm that places the most value on importance vs. one that places value on compelling, relevant and interesting stories.
Here are two pages from Bakersfield's redesign. The published page appears on the left; the prototype page based on the same day's content appears on the right.
The lead story on the published page is "Thomas parts from Bush on retirement." Important? Probably. Interesting, compelling and relevant? No. Note that this story didn't even make the front page of the prototype. Now let's see which stories did make it:
"Gay marriage opponents seek amendment." An important story? Maybe, but highly relevant and interesting to the morally conservative Bakersfield market. This story did not appear on the front of the published edition.
"US Airways and AmericaWest to merge." An important story? Not really. But highly relevant, because Bakersfield was served by just three airlines – one of which is AmericaWest. This merger could impact air travel in and out of Bakersfield. This is another story that didn't rate a mention on the published front page.
"Wal-Mart spins DVD rental business to Netflix." An important story. No. But how many people in Bakersfield go to Wal-Mart and rent DVDs? Lots. This story is highly relevant to lots of people.
Let's see how this new paradigm plays out on a big news day:
The published page on the left announces the selection of a new pope - as if everyone hadn't already heard about it the day before. It's a classic example of "Until we print it, it hasn't happened."
The prototype page on the right takes a "second-cycle" approach, asking "who is this guy?" Then it proceeds to answer the question by using his own words to describe his positions on the emotionally charged moral issues that concern Bakersfield: Women in the priesthood, homosexuality, the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church, and Islam.
The prototype page goes even further by showing the most interesting aspect of a unsurprising news event – the photo of the new pope in his Hitler youth uniform. The text accompanying the photo explains that this was not uncommon in the 1930s, but c'mon, when's the last time you saw a Nazi pope?
Was the photo important? Not really. Is it interesting and will people talk about it? You betcha!
KEY – Readers crave news that is compelling, relevant and interesting to them.
6. Admit it. Shorter is better
Before you tar-and-feather me, let me be clear: I am not saying all stories should be short – publish 10,000 words on Pricess Diana and Anglophiles will read every column inch. But most newspaper stories should be much shorter than they are today.
Unfortunately for newspaper readers, journalists believe there is a direct correlation between the value of a story and its length. This is not true.
Length ≠ substance; length = time.
One of America's best journalists, Mark Twain, said it best: "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one."
Great writers start at newspapers – Mark Twain is the best example – but newspapers aren't the best forum for truly great writing. Newspapers are about information delivered efficiently, not literature.
To put it another way, does anyone remember a word of the three-hour speech that preceded Lincoln's Gettysburg address, which contained just 272 words? Has any American written a better speech?
Now here's a tougher question: What's the best-selling, general-interest men's magazine on Planet Earth?
Playboy? No. Penthouse? No. Hustler? No. Esquire. No. Give up?
It's Maxim. And it's not because they show more skin. (Actually, they show less.)
It's because the entire magazine is 100% short form. You won't find a single "story" in 178 pages.
Here's how the publisher explains his success:
“Our readers are young affluent men, which means they're busier today than they will ever be in their lives; they have short attention spans, they are chronically overstimulated and easily bored.”
(Kinda sounds like the people newspapers are trying to reach, doesn't it?)
“The numbers demonstrate we're not pulling guys away from other magazines, we're pulling them away from television and the Internet. We're getting guys who weren't reading any magazines at all to read. And we've done it with eye-catching graphics, short form text, multiple entry points, et cetera.”
Shorter isn't only better. It's also legitimate. Here are some typical short-form pages from a single issue of Time magazine picked at random:
Now let's see how newspapers can use these short form techniques with examples from the Californian and the Republican-American.
The published page on the left leads with "Private accounts in doubt." About seven column inches of copy appear on the front and the story jumps inside. The story says that some Republicans and all Democrats oppose Bush's privatization scheme, so it's unlikely to happen.
The prototype page on the right gets this information across in just a few sentences without a jump because there was no need to say more.
The published page on the left reports that "Surrogate mother gives birth to five." About five column inches of text appear on the front and the story jumps inside.
The prototype shows the surrogate mother and the parents. Does this story really need more than a photo and cutline? Doesn't the photo show more than any amount of text can tell?
Let's look at another example from Bakersfield:
The prototype page contains three stories that didn't make the front of the published edition:
• Hacksaw may be used to repair shuttle's belly"
(Ya gotta love a headline that includes both "hacksaw" and "shuttle.")
• "Sea lion attacks teen"
• "Bush skirts Senate, names U.N. critic as ambassador"
The shuttle story is of particular interest to readers in Bakersfield because the shuttle often lands at Edwards Air Force Base which is in their circulation area. The U.N. ambassador story isn't particularly compelling or relevant, but it's an important story worthy of the front page that can be told in just a few sentences.
The sea lion attack story is compelling, relevant and interesting because the attack took place at a beach frequented by many people from Bakersfield.
All three of these stories merit the front page and all can be told without a lot of text.
Waterbury's redesign also makes extensive use of short form, primarily in the form of a front page news digest.
Here are the items in the prototype pages news digest:
• "Rowland to report to prison today"
• "Broader state subpoena power faces coalition of opponents"
• "Hearing set on bus fare increase"
• "Federal panel bluntly criticizes intelligence community gaffes"
• "Koppel to leave Nightline in December"
The gist of all these stories can be communicated in a sentence or two. Two of these stories – the former governor reporting to prison and Koppel leaving Nightline – did not make the front page of the published edition. Neither of these stories are particularly important, but both are interesting and relevant – another nod to a new kind of news judgment.
KEY – Readers are not begging for more stories or longer stories. They want their news delivered in fewer words.
7. Innovate like you mean it
The headline on a recent cover of AJR (American Journalism Review) encouraged journalists to "Adapt or Die."
A story inside this issue explained how newspapers are reacting to declining readership by "Remaking the Front Page." The story explained the changes made by six newspapers. This quote from the editor of one of the papers summed up the spirit of the piece: "We're taking more risks We're being more creative in how we package information."
Here are typical front pages, chosen at random, from three of the newspapers profiled in the AJR story:
Let's see what innovation looks like. At the top of each page I see "skybox" promos – just like almost every other paper in America. Beneath these promos I see nameplates that stretch across the width of the page – just like almost every other paper in America. In the middle of each page I see a "centerpiece" – a large color photo packaged with a newsfeature that was probably crafted days before.
If this is innovation, then we're really in trouble. (Oh yeah, that's right. We are in trouble.)
But maybe I'm being unfair – let's look at the other three papers profiled in the AJR story:
No innovation is readily apparent to me. But again, maybe I'm being unfair. Maybe I'd need to see these papers really close to see the innovation.
Unfortunately, that's the problem. Newspaper readers are not going to squint and strain to see our innovation. If it isn't readily apparent to them, it's invisible to them.
Nothing in AJR's opus on innovation got my attention, except for this one sentence: "The Washington Post's weekday circulation is down nearly 30,000 from a year ago."
Whoa. I'd read an entire issue of AJR about that! How'd it happen? What are they doing about it? What does this mean for the other 1,400+ daily newspapers in the U.S.?
But don't give up hope. Innovation in newspapers does exist. Let's look at The Eureka Reporter in Eureka, Calif.
The Eureka Reporter started as a Web site. It began publishing once a week with a circulation of 6,000 in 2004. It was redesigned, then grew to three times a week.
The page on the left is a published page. The page on the right is a prototype based on the same content.
How many stories do you see on the prototype page? The answer is "one," if you use the traditional definition of a story. So how does The Eureka Reporter produce such a newsy-looking front page? It's all in the format of the design.
Here are some typical inside pages from the redesign. There's nothing particularly noteworthy about these highly competent pages, until you learn that the entire paper was produced by six full-time employees (and that included the publisher and the advertising staff).
But here's something that is noteworthy – the Arts pages.
These pages compare favorably to America's biggest and best newspapers. The quality of these pages is due in no small measure to the talent and skill of Eureka's design director, Kevin Bell. But they also owe much to the spirit of innovation that exists at this little paper in northern California. It's no wonder that the Society for News Design judged this redesign to be one of the best in the world.
KEY – Even the smallest of newspapers have the resources to deliver world-class innovation.
8. Look before you leap
"The reason we launched our redesign without fanfare is because we wanted a redesign by stealth. Most redesigns piss off readers."
What an unfortunate sentiment. More unfortunate is that it was uttered in regard to the redesign of the Chicago Sun Times – a very fine effort. Even more unfortunate is that it came from the Sun Times' editor-in-chief, Michael Cooke.
But most unfortunate is that it's true – most redesigns do piss off readers.
It doesn't have to be this way. Newspapers need not be blindsided by a torrent of complaints if they carefully test their redesign with readers and advertisers before they launch them.
Why test with advertisers? Because they are customers, too. And they pay most of the freight.
A careful test requires the production of a complete prototype edition based on all the content that was available during the actual news cycle. Then it is printed on the newspaper's press so focus groups can make a head-to-head comparison between the currently published newspaper and the new one.
Here's the front page of the prototype edition we showed focus groups in Waterbury:
Most newspaper executives are skeptical of focus groups, but I've found them to be remarkably accurate predictors of initial reaction to redesigns.
KEY – Any change worthy of the name will be a leap for newspapers and readers. Test the waters before you push the button.
9. Promote as if it matters
Because it does.
Virtually everything that is sold relies in some measure on advertising, marketing and promotion. Only newspapers believe they are above all that.
When newspapers do break down and advertise, where do they place their messages? In the newspaper. Talk about preaching to the choir!
How can newspapers hope to reach people who don't read the newspaper by promoting themselves inside the newspaper?
And how can newspapers urge other businesses to spend on advertising when they won't do it themselves? I'd hate to be an newspaper ad salesman faced with that question from an advertiser!
The sorry state of newspaper self-promotion reminds me of an old joke: Two old women are staying at a Catskills resort. One complains, "The food here is so bad." The other woman replies, "And the portions are so small."
Newspapers rarely promote themselves. And when they do, the ads are generally lousy. Here's a case in point from Newsday's redesign:
This graphic is meant to explain how much easier it is to find what you're looking for, but all the circles and arrows make it look like instructions from Ikea.
If your new design is better, it should be self-evident. If you have to explain how much easier it is, chances are it isn't.
On the other hand, check out this TV spot from the redesign of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: (It's a big file, so please be patient while it downloads. If if doesn't play with a single click, try a double-click.)
This ad was produced by the PD's Terrie Robbins – one of the best in the business. First it uses humor to engage the viewer. Then it delivers a simple, easy-to-remember message that emphasizes the benefits to the readers: "More news. Easier to read."
To be effective an ad must first engage the viewer, then communicate the value to them. Any campaign that announces "Come see our shiny new design!" makes me want to say "Why should I?"
KEY – You can't reach people who don't read the paper with poorly crafted ads in the paper.
10. Don't drop the ball
You can march down the field doing everything right. But you can't score if you drop the ball at the goal line. A case in point is the "experience newspaper" in Minneapolis.
If you haven't heard about this experiment to boost readership, you should have. It has been ballyhooed in The American Editor, Design and in AJR. Much has been made of this project which launched last fall. But little has been said since. Why? Because it's had no impact on circulation.
How can I be sure? Because no one in Minneapolis would keep it a secret if they had discovered a way to sell more papers. Ironically, I believe they did find a way to sell more papers and I'll explain in a moment why it hasn't worked.
But let's start at the very beginning (which I hear is a very good place to start).
The page on the left is an actual, published front page. The page on the right is a prototype that was shown to focus groups. Here's how the page on the left was altered to produce the page on the right:
• The lead story, "Bush aims to repair alliances," was removed.
• The centerpiece about a woman who walked across Minneapolis was replaced by "Should poker be a crime?"
• The headline on "Broader DNA collection law proposed" was rewritten. The new headline says "License, registration and saliva, please "
Here's what they learned in Minneapolis: If you replace a boring lead story and centerpiece with stories real people care about, if you write better headlines, and if you add a timely story about identity theft and throw in a photo of Paris Hilton for good measure, guess what – people will prefer the page on the right.
The folks in Minneapolis call this the "experience" newspaper. I call it good news judgment – putting stories on the front page that are compelling, relevant and interesting. No matter what you call it, it's the right thing to do.
So why isn't it moving the needle in Minneapolis? Because they talked the talk but they don't walk the walk.
The experience newspaper worked in Minneapolis, but readers don't get this experience on a daily basis. Let's look at an actual front page, chosen at random, to see what the readers sees vs. the prototype of the "experience paper" on the right.
Let's start with an actual centerpiece, not one that was cooked up to wow focus groups:
"More Minnesota women are leaving the workforce." Doesn't sing like "Should poker be a crime," does it?
Look below the centerpiece and you'll find:
"Life goes on, you can't let them get the better of you." As soon as I see "Life goes on" I want to, as well. I know life goes on – I don't need the StarTribune to tell me that.
But let's dig deeper into this story about the aftermath of a bombing in Israel. I've seen these stories for decades, and the fact that I'm Jewish is not enough to get me to read another one unless it's compelling. This story isn't.
Finally, let's look at the lead story: "United CEO says he'll take no more stock options" a.k.a "Rich old white guy rips off company." Is this story important? Of course it is. But there's nothing I can do about it and it doesn't affect me personally. It isn't compelling, relevant or interesting, so I'm not gonna read it.
But if I did read it, here's the "experience" I would have:
Headline: "United CEO says he'll take no more stock options"
Time-saving summary: "Willian McGuire of UnitedHealth Group has accumulated $1.6 billion in stock options; now he says the company practice should end."
What a minute – isn't that just what the headline said? This "time-saving" summary didn't save me time – it wasted my time by parroting the headline.
Now let's look at the lead of the story: "UnitedHealth Group Inc. CEO Dr. William McGuire has accumulated stock options worth an estimated $1.6 billion. On Tuesday, he acknowledged that might be enough."
What a minute – isn't that just what the headline and the summary said? Not entirely. To be fair, by reading the lead I learned that UnitedHealth Group is incorporated and that McGuire is a doctor. If I read further I might have learned in what state UnitedHealth Group is incorporated and what kind of doctor McGuire is.
But seriously, if the Strib with all its resources can't do a better job of editing the top story on its front page, then we're all in a lot of trouble. (Oh yeah, that's right. We are in trouble.)
KEY – If you want to sell more newspapers, you gotta follow through every day on every page.
Comments? Send them
Brilliant stuff – some of the shrewdest insights on redesigns I've ever seen. Brutal, but truthful. I only wish more editors would pay attention before it's too late.
Posted by Tim Harrower, Author and designer
Digital Ink, Wilsonville, OR
Your latest work should be printed out and nailed to the doors of editors everywhere. If they were all marched into a room and wired up Clockwork-Orange-style to a screen and allowed no other influence other than "How to Sell More Papers," it might make a deeper impact. I fear, however, that those who truly "get it" are leaving the daily industry and that saddens me, too. Others who remain are more worried about appearing to follow "industry trends" and "corporate mandates" than making a genuine connection with their specific readers.
Posted by Mark M. Sweetwood, Senior Associate Managing Editor
Hometown News, Melbourne, FL
Thanks for taking the time to create "How to sell more newspapers." It will
change how and what I teach in the classroom immediately. You've done a service for newspapers everywhere (if they will only take the advice seriously). And your writing is a terrific example of how to do "shorter is better."
Posted by Dr. Denny Wilkins, associate professor
St. Bonaventure University, St. Bonaventure, NY
I read your latest lengthy passage (you seem to violate your own rules) about how more
newspapers can be sold.
I found it humorously unfulfilling. The only portion that piqued my interest was the final
portion, where you mentioned the parroting of headlines.
Wait, newspapers shouldn't be repetitive? Stop the presses! Alan, my man, I think you've
discovered the wheel and the light bulb at the same time!
You have the same problem that most pseudoediting designers do: You restate the obvious
as discovery, then overlook the even more obvious.
The even more obvious, which you fail to admit, is this: The design-based approach has been
a colossal failure across the board. It's destroyed credibility. It's de-emphasized editing and
headline writing. It's led to any number of morons getting positions they don't have the
qualifications to hold.
For almost four years, I've asked design dolts such as yourself to provide proof that design
lures readers on a consistent basis. No one has done so.
The true way to sell more newspapers is to fire the psuedoediting designers and get editors
and writers back into the newsrooms. Why do designers even want to be in a business that
should stress writing and reading comprehension skills -- skills that designers clearly don't
Again, readers read newspapers. They don't look at them for the pretty design. Readers read
newspapers. Readers read newspapers. Keep repeating that to yourself; maybe you'll outpace
the other design dolts and grasp it someday.
Here's the lesson of the last 20 years in journalism: If, as a leader, you aren't willing to roll up your sleeves and do the difficult, hands-on work of culture change, it doesn't matter how good your ideas are, how flashy your design is, or what mantra you've adopted.
As usual, you're insights on what should be happening within our nation's newspapers is dead on. Your piece is a concise primer on ideas that have been circulating for a half decade or more and further evidence of the absence of leadership in a struggling industry.
The challenge, however, is the "how." How do you engage people at all levels of the organization in the execution of your mission? How do you respectfully deal with the conflicts that, inevitably, will happen? How do you model the active listening behavior within your organization so that reporters and others will actively listen to the community? How do you create something organic rather than something prescribed?
After 20+ years in journalism – as an editor, managing editor, designer and reporter – I came to the sad realization that while there were individual beacons of hope at specific newspapers, there were no companies seriously exploring the necessary culture change. They had succumbed to Einstein's Definition of Insanity – Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
So I joined, and later bought, a company called Rapid Change. We have been helping organizations as diverse as Coca-Cola and Cerberus Private Equity, International Paper and the Minneapolis Public Schools, embrace the continuous improvement, open communication, change-driven cultures necessary to succeed.