I gotta say, with the big five-six looming large in life’s windshield, experience does bring certain benefits. (Please note that experience has taught me not to say “age.”). And some of those perks come from first-hand knowledge.
For example, don’t eat kim chi more than once every four days. Don’t tell your wife anything makes her butt look fat. Don’t argue with idiots (or ancillary players) because people might not be able to tell the difference. Don’t touch certain body parts after you’ve seeded jalapeno peppers. Never ask a woman when she’s due no matter how sure you are. And no one, on their death bed, ever said they wish they’d spent more time at the office.
Then there’s the stuff you pick up through osmosis. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are (not terribly difficult in my case). Gratitude is the second most powerful sentiment on this planet. The journey is the destination. And never cheat on your wife because having to cater to the emotional needs of two women ranks somewhere between the seventh and eighth circles of Dante’s inferno.
In light of this slow old dog actually managing to learn some new tricks, I remain utterly baffled by newspapers’ capacity to remain steadfast in the face of those rapidly rising floodwaters. It’s as if they believe they’ll simply start to breathe underwater.
What incited this particular line of thought you say? It was a combination of two things.
The first was Neil Steinberg’s appearance on Left, Right and You in which he laid those fading print media fortunes on the line. If you haven’t already listened to it, then you really should.
The second came through my most recent discovery that, if I take the dog for a leisurely two-mile walk right after my morning run, that cool-down greatly enhances the recovery process. And it was during one of those walks when I suddenly noticed that no one’s getting a paper anymore.
I’ve tried to be a bit more tactful when addressing my former journalistic brothers and sisters in the past, but not only has that proven to be a futile effort, soon there’s gonna be nothing left to save. So here goes:
1. Eliminate the print version of your paper now!
It’s gonna happen anyway so you might as well get it over with. C’mon, this is your single biggest expense and it brings very little return.
So you’ll lose all the little old ladies who’ve been subscribing for decades. So what? What did Danny DeVito say in “Other People’s Money?” “Do you want to know the surest way to go broke? Keep getting an increasing share of a shrinking market. Down the tubes. Slow but sure.”
I understand that print brings a slightly better advertising buck, but quality reporters are a far better long-term investment.
And the sad truth is, none of you can reliably deliver a newspaper anyway. My radio cohort Larry Jones consistently complains that he can’t get a suburban paper delivered no matter how many times their “customer service” swears it can be done.
2. Stop trying to be the Internet.
In one of the most absurd ironies anywhere, those same publishers and managing editors who refuse to abandon their “this is the way we’ve always done it mentality,” suddenly believe they have to turn their papers into Buzzfeed.
Yes! The American attention span is generally contracting, but the folks most affected by this trend were never your customers to begin with so stop catering to them. You can’t beat the Internet to the punch on your best day.
What your readers really want is the kind of in-depth analysis that the tube and Internet rarely provide. We want more of the kind of insights that have always been the traditional bailiwick of the print media.
3. Make it local.
I may not have all the answers (or maybe I do), but what I can tell you with certainty is that saving money with syndicated content won’t. No one buys a newspaper to read Krauthammer, Ivins, or Thomas.
In fact, those ideologues are the complete antithesis of what real journalism is supposed to be, and when you give them space, it means one less local issue can be covered.
Anyone can aggregate the national news, but no one knows their backyard like a newspaper does – so stick with it.
4. Act like you’ve been there.
When you write about scandals that aren’t, you lose credibility. When you make a story seem to be far more than it really is, you lose credibility. When you don’t cover a story because you choose to be inconsistent, you lose credibility.
And those losses start to add up.
Your readers want to feel like they’re in on something. They want their newspapers to be smarter than they are. Sometimes the real story is explaining why there isn’t a real story.
5. No one cares about the low hanging fruit so starting climbing the tree.
No one gives a flying bleep about random on-the-street interviews. If we really want to talk to regular folks we can walk out the front door.
No one cares that someone lived to be a hundred. No one cares about an Illinois State Fair butter sculpture. No one cares about a preliminary county deficit that will be resolved (unless you write about how the resolution process works) long before November. And no one cares that they’re replacing a transformer on a casino roof.
One of the reasons folks aren’t subscribing to newspapers anymore is they’re rejecting your content. Why do you thing the New York Times has fared the least poorly? (Talk about damning with faint praise!). Because they offer amazing content.
Yet most editors insist upon clinging to the patronizing belief that they know what the readers really want. Before you run a story ask yourself the question, “so what?” And if you can’t answer it, use the delete key.
6. Develop relationships with the folks you’ll be covering.
When I think about the best reporters in Kane County, three names immediately come to mind. Dan Campana, Matt Hanley, and Dave Gathman. And Dave is the only one left which is really going to screw up my tense usage here.
The unique thing about that trio is, they’d be more than willing to sit down with all manner of public and elected officials because they knew it would provide some down the road dividends and they were never star struck enough to be bought off with a simple lunch.
The irony is, the reporters who claim to sit on the fence and always be objective rarely are, while the ones who admit to their biases actually make a far greater effort to be objective.
It’s difficult to explain, but it’s the difference between an adequate reporter and a great one. Great reporters know how to look down that long road and consider the consequences, but still make the best decision in the eternal present.
7. Engage your readers!
The comments are turned on, then the comments are turned off. Reporters can respond to readers and then they can’t. We want reader input, but we really don’t. It’s like living in a bleepin’ dysfunctional family.
C’mon! This one’s really simple. Since newspapers know their backyard so well, they’re in a unique position to continue the conversation. And to make that work, all you have to do is forbid anonymity, moderate the goddamn forums so the ancillary players don’t dominate and destroy them, and give your staff the leeway and time to respond.
Readers want to believe they “know” the folks involved and this kind of communication is your best opportunity to provide that experience. If someone claims censorship, who gives a flying bleep! It’s your forum – run it the way you want to run it.
Remember when theaters thought it was a good idea not to antagonize the nitwits because they’d lose too many customers? Then all the quiet people stopped going to the movies. Now that they’re finally ejecting the blowhards, it’s too late. You won’t catch me in a movie theater unless I’m trying to get my wife to be a little bit more “friendly.”
8. Hold yourself to the same standard to which you hold the people you cover.
To kinda quote a great book here, of these eight commandments, this one is the greatest.
There’s a paper out there that will drop a slew of newspapers at local libraries and claim them in their circulation. They’ll also offer businesses ten papers for a dime and throw those numbers in too. I wonder if their advertisers know?
Another paper does the free trial subscription for a charitable donation thing, but the specifics aren’t always spelled out and some folks end up with a full price subscription that’s difficult to cancel.
If anybody else got caught doing that kind of thing they’d be writing about them.
Then, for the life of me, I cannot figure out how 95 percent of journalists, whose task it is to afflict the comfortable who deserve it, cannot take the slightest bit of criticism themselves. If it didn’t mean the end of the road, it would be quite hilarious to watch.
The Tribune’s Phil Rosenthal, who generally does a good job, just did a column on the Trib being spun off from their parent company. And it was pure unadulterated bullshit. All that cheerleading served to do is get his peers to pat him on the back and reinforce their capacity to ignore the rising waters just a little bit longer.
Dig down man! Look inside. Own up to your mistakes. Challenge your editors. Challenge your publishers. Stop whining and complaining and make a fucking effort. Come up with some alternatives because the only alternative to what I’m saying is to become even worse than the people you cover.
I’ll leave you with the strangely sage words of Bob Dylan:
Gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
Keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again