2003.12.10 Culture of my newsroom

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

I know what you want, but that doesn’t mean I’ll give it to you. Maybe I’ll just stumble along as I have over the years.

I’ve been reading about newspapers lately, and it’s always entertaining to find out what the Big Guys do and what we’re all supposed to be doing and how I probably fail so miserably.

In a report about readership issues, I saw people mentioned with titles such as  “readership editor.” Another person served as readership editor for a year and then she was promoted to “director of innovations.”

So many titles; so few people to assign the chores.

The challenge for these titled people is to come up with the answer to the old question: What makes people read newspapers?

Newspaper circulation is dropping nationwide and publishers are worried. Not all publishers. I’m not worried. The Observer’s circulation fluctuates from year to year, but there’s no significant change. We’re doing OK.

A national newspaper group really looked into the challenges of readership. They surveyed 37,000 readers who responded to 450 questions. Can you imagine that? Spending the time to answer 450 questions? What kind of a person would put up with all of that? This casts a shadow of doubt on the survey.

POURING through the data (21 million pieces of data), researchers came up with eight solutions to address shrinking readership, such as:

• Customer service. In a summary report, mention was made of a paper in Florida that has people answering the phone who could take an ad, deal with a missed paper, take a report on the birth of a child, etc. And, even more flabbergasting, this same person could be found at the front desk when a reader walked into the newspaper office.

We already have a couple of those people on staff, so we’re doing OK there.

• Content. They measured 30 news topics and readers put the most importance on news about the community and ordinary people. At some papers, news means bad news, but crime reporting was way down on the list, just ahead of sports.

Higher up on the list are stories about science. That’s good news to me. Science stories are my favorite, and better yet, readers said it’s OK if they’re long. It’s a complicated science topic, after all.

• Brand. I’ve always been somewhat confused about this word. I think of cattle in the old west. I think of steers screaming in pain as a hot iron is applied to a buttock. So how does that transfer to a newspaper?

Apparently, it has something to do with readers’ perceptions of your newspaper. Do readers see your paper as dull? As negative? As a little stupid? Or, as the example in the study points out, intelligent, successful and experienced?

I’m not sure that I want to ask the question. It’s easier to just keep on doing what I’m doing.

• Culture. They’re talking about the newspaper’s culture and how it might need to be reformed. Editors and writers get these ideas in their heads about what a newspaper should contain and it becomes the culture of the newsroom. I don’t take pictures of people passing checks or shaking hands over a plaque. I try to avoid photos of people in the firing squad position staring at the camera. I know there are people out there who want check passing photos, but it’s not part of my culture.

In response to the study, several papers are adding more of what is known as “chicken-dinner news”: weddings, obituaries, stories about ordinary people. In other words, they’re adding what we Little Guys have done for years.

I’ll take additional obituaries, too, but I’m not going to go out of my way to create them. I’ll always remember the reader survey at a Hillsdale County paper: Give us more obituaries.

From what I’ve read, it appears that, overall, publishers have responded to the readership study by scheduling a lot more staff meetings. That sounds like an important first step toward keeping things just the same.

     – Dec. 10, 2003

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