Monday, January 14, 2008

Newspapers CAN do this

The longer I am out of the newspaper industry, the easier it becomes to see the possibilities that still exist for my former colleagues, who are struggling daily under the burden of fewer readers and less advertising dollars and daily cutbacks in newsrooms. I guess it's because I'm working for an online startup company that produces, well, so far one niche online publication.

A few months ago I was talking to a friend about my new job and she asked me if I'd had any big "ah-ha" moments since joining the "dark side." While I've mentioned this before, I haven't really gone into detail. But having been at this gig for almost half year, I think I can now say it with the kind of clarity journalists expert when talking with someone who "thinks" they have some answers. So I will repeat myself again.

Newspapers CAN do this.

I'll return to my traditional print roots and a few of the experiments of news companies past. One such company, which sold all of its papers before the Internet stole its profit margins, touted "Reader Inc." The idea was simple: make certain newspapers were covering "real people" and the stories written "for the reader." Ok, you'd think that would be kind of a no-brainer, but sometimes journalists have to be led by the nose.

We were just getting good at that when my newspaper got sold to another company and along came "Real Life, Real News," another idea that was supposed to improve a declining circulation. This group of editors decided that we needed to cover the topics that mattered to people - like how to be a better mom, what to look for in a good school, that kind of thing.

By the time the idea was really big in the company, I was working in a state (one I've since returned to) that is prone to hurricanes. After one summer of four in a row, including Charley, (which personally visited my roof) we wrote a series of articles on topics like: how to grill a good dinner when the electricity is out or what to do when your family members - who have no roof - are staying in your home.

I think you get the idea.

Since I'd been an editor under "Reader Inc.," the "Real Life, Real News," idea wasn't a big stretch for me. And truthfully, since I began my career, I've always written stories with my mother in mind. She isn't from the United States, English isn't her first or even second language and she doesn't have a formal education of any sort. So as a reporter, I always wrote stories with her in mind - the "How would you explain this to your mother?" idea.

To get back to my point, I have been thinking about those two "campaigns" if you will. And it's occurred to me a number of times over the last couple of months that a newspaper company could easily pick a topic it's already covering in several markets and use that content to produce a national web site to attract readers. Sooooooooo, it's kind of like a special section, which all its news sites could link to as well.

Yes, you'd have to get rid of the silos (the kind that my friend says is what keeps her company from doing this) and ohmygawd newspapers in the same company or in competing companies might - eek!!! -- actually have to work together to provide content for the site. And forgive me Wall Street, but, yes, you might have to hire a few good people (not many, though) to do what we used to call "re-write"so stories had broad reader appeal. And you might have to get advertising and marketing involved, so there's a plan beyond the content.

But really, think about. Babycenter, WebMD or How "Reader Inc.," "Real Life, Real News," can you get? And there's a long list of successful content web sites. It makes you wonder, really. Why can't newspapers do that, too? Just a question.

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