2003.12.10 Culture of my newsroom

Written 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
  • Front.cowboy
    A PERFORMER named Biligbaatar, a member of the AnDa Union troupe from Inner Mongolia, dances at Stair District Library last week during a visit to the Midwest. The nine-member group blends a variety of traditions from Inner and Outer Mongolia. The music is described as drawing from “all the Mongol tribes that Genghis Khan unified.” The group considers itself music gatherers whose goal is to preserve traditional sounds of Mongolia. Biligbaatar grew up among traditional herders who live in yurts. Additional photos are on the back page of this week’s Observer.
  • Front.base Ball
    UMPIRE Thomas Henthorn tosses the bat between team captains Mikayla Price and Chuck Piskoti of Flint’s Lumber City Base Ball Club. Following the 1860 rules, after the bat was grabbed by the captains, captains’ hands advanced to the top of the bat—one hand on top of the other. The captain whose hand ended up on top decided who would bat first. Additional photos of Sunday’s game appear on page 12 of this week’s Observer. The contest was organized in conjunction with Stair District Library’s Hometown Teams exhibit that runs through Nov. 20.
  • Front.chat
    VALUE OF ATHLETICS—Morenci graduate John Bancroft (center) takes a turn at the microphone during a chat session at the opening of the Hometown Teams exhibit at Stair District Library. Clockwise to his left is John Dillon, Jed Hall, Jim Bauer, Joe Farquhar, George Hollstein, George Vereecke and Mike McDowell. Thomas Henthorn (at the podium) kicked off the conversation. Henthorn, a University of Michigan–Flint professor, will return to Morenci this Sunday to lead a game of vintage base ball at the school softball field.
  • Front.cross
    HUDSON RUNNER Jacob Morgan looks toward the top of the hill with dismay during the tough finish at Harrison Lake State Park. Fayette runner Jacob Garrow focuses on the summit, also, during the Eagle Invitational cross country run Saturday morning. Continuing rain and drizzle made the course even more challenging. Results of the race are in this week’s Observer.
  • Front.bear
    HOLDEN HUTCHISON gives a hug to a black bear cub—the product of a taxidermist’s skills—at the Michigan DNR’s Great Youth Jamboree. The event on Sunday marked the fourth year of the Jamboree. Additional photos are on page 12.
  • Front.crossing
    Crossing over—Jim Heiney was given a U.S. flag to carry by George Vereecke (behind Jim in the hat), turning him into the leader of the parade. Bridge Walk participants cross over Bean Creek while, in the background, members of the Morenci Legion Riders cross the main traffic bridge on East Street South. Additional photos appear on the back page of this week’s Observer.
  • Front.hose Testing
    HOSE safety—The FireCatt hose testing company from Troy put Morenci Fire Department hose to the test Monday morning when Mill Street was closed to traffic. The company also checks nozzles and ladders for wear in an effort to keep fire fighters safe while on calls.

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