If It's Important To You,
It's Important To Us
... We were terrific with the big stuff but we did a poor job of covering everyday community activities ...
By John C. Peterson
As a young editor I was constantly torn by what I called the "them and us" dilemma, them being the readers and us being the staff of the newspaper.
It's a twilight zone of priorities, generally driven by what's fun and interesting versus the mundane. We loved breaking news and writing investigative pieces and we were very good at it.
We did things like send two guys to Florida for a week to develop a series around a former resident who had just been arrested as a serial rapist and murderer. Another series made it to Washington where President Jimmy Carter was asked to comment on safety concerns we raised about the federal prison system. We'd consistently break state-wide stories. Big stuff.
It was my first editorial management job at a 35,000 daily and Sunday in Norwich, Conn. In three years we had been nominated for two Pulitizers, finalists for the Associated Press Managing Editors' Association public service award two years in a row, consistent first place winners in the annual National Newspaper Association contest and if we didn't come home with at least a dozen New England Press Association awards each year, I was disappointed. The big kick was having other papers pick up our copyrighted stories and hearing the paper quoted as a source on New York City radio stations.
Oh the glory.
I can remember my first Associated Press Managing Editors' convention. That year we were a finalist for the public service award and won a citation for our many contributions to the AP news report which meant I wore two different badges noting the recognition. Well, I'll tell you what ... editors I had only read about were starting conversations with me. I even had a drink on a Mississippi riverboat with Abe Rosenthal who was then the managing editor of The New York Times. This was the big time.
Meeting news and town hall briefs, well... what can I say?
I don't remember the epiphany, but at some point I began to reflect on what we were doing. We were terrific with the big stuff but we did a poor job of covering everyday community activities. We had 28 communities in our circulation area, some of them with populations of 2-3,000. If something happened or there was a meeting, we had it, but our news report lacked dimension. At times we could go several days without a story from even our medium sized towns. The paper was more about us (the staff) and less about our readers' needs.
I won't waste a lot of time on the myriad of excuses I heard, but I eliminated the one about not enough space by zoning the paper. That made sense on a couple of fronts. First it gave us the space, but secondly it allowed us to personalize the paper by regions. To me, making a reader plow through the news of towns they cared nothing about was like static on the radio. It interfered with the reading experience, it got in the way.
I insisted that every town we covered have at least one good news story and briefs every day because I never wanted any reader to ever pick up the paper and not find something about their community. The first casualty of this edict was the guy who sent down the school lunch menus with a double deck 36 point head with a note to the copy desk that this was his main story for that edition.
The more we investigated the more we realized what the space problem had done to us. Some of the bureaus had stopped sending items because they never got in and many of those that were sent were heavily edited or cut. We were getting some youth news in the paper, but it was used as filler. Often only an inch or two of that galley from a Boy Scout court of honor with 50 or more names made it into the paper, and you know what happens when you leave 40 names out.
We were wholesaling discontent and missing a great opportunity at the same time. Parents didn't really care when it was in the paper, they would be happy to just see it in the paper, whenever we could get to it. This is the stuff that scrapbooks are made of and they wanted no name left behind.
So we created a showcase for youth news in the Sunday edition because we could always find space there. It wasn't long before we were swamped with even more submissions. I considered it a victory because I considered every name in every press release a vote of confidence that our paper was the place to be. My strategy was to create a cradle to grave readership relationship and if I could get seven and eight year-old kids to be looking at the paper I was well on my way to harvesting our next generation of readers.
Mindful, this was way back in the old days when we used these things called typewriters and every desk had a glue pot, but the lessons still stand. Content is everything and if it's important to readers, it should be important to the newspaper.
People pick up a newspaper or visit a web site for one reason, information. The more of it you have, the more relevant it is and the easier it is to read, the better. The best designed newspaper and the slickest and neatest website are useless unless they hold people's interest and bring them back for more.
Content is everything.
John C. Peterson is principal of The Peterson Group, a media and marketing consulting company founded in 1995, specializing in community publications. He is the former president of Capital Cities/ABC’s New England Newspaper Group, which published 75 newspapers and shoppers in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. He began his career as a reporter and has been a managing editor, sales director and publisher. His newspapers have won numerous regional and national awards for investigative reporting and general excellence.