Here’s another installment from my e-mail interview with the California Newspaper Publishers Association from earlier this year:
In the Orange County towns covered by your revamp, the clamor for original, local news “like they used to make when times were good” [my phrase – like it?] – what does that sound like? (I’m assuming you’ve asked local folks what they want, and they’ve answered…)
After having focused on digital delivery and audience growth for so long, one of the things I learned was what readers really want. And what I loved about that was more traditional newspaper folks would say crazy things like: “Well, if we give our readers what they want, we’ll only be publishing stories and photos of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan.” That always cracked me up because when I looked at the real numbers and tried to honestly understand what local readers really spent time with, it was never Britney or Lindsay.
On the other hand, it also wasn’t the kind of boring stuff that fills many newspapers.
With the Register’s new weekly newspapers, we’re trying to serve our readers’ needs. When you understand the narrative of a real reader’s life, you begin to realize that a whole lot of our industry’s woes have a whole lot less to do with the Internet and a whole lot more to do with newsrooms being just a bit disconnected with what people really want and need.
We run more public record information – business licenses, real estate transactions, arrest reports – in these weekly newspapers than any other print product I’ve ever seen. But we definitely aren’t trying to be the paper of record. We’re trying to be the paper of interesting.
As a good friend of mine once told me, so many papers fill their pages with things that they feel should be there – things that are CYA stories, things that are perceived as important by most newsroom folks, but maybe aren’t really all that interesting to most readers – rather than with things people might actually want to read. We don’t really have that problem with our weeklies.
It’s a given that we’re going to cover the news. But who is going to tell you where to get great cupcakes for your kid’s birthday party or what the best janitor in Orange County says is the most effective way to clean windows, or which local restaurants have those cool new Coke machines? We are. And we’re going to do it in way that makes you smile. Maybe even laugh.
People should smile when they read the newspaper. They’ve gotten too accustomed to shaking their head in disgust when they open our pages. I’m not saying that we have to publish lots of fluff, but we shouldn’t be afraid of being pleasant.
Our readers have been telling us for years that they want more good news in our papers, that they get burned out on the constant doom and gloom. Yet most newspapers have ignored that request. Why? Are we afraid we won’t be taken seriously by the industry if we tell the good news stories? We’re not afraid to tell the good news stories – our weeklies are full of them. And our readers tell us they love them.
From 1940 to 2010, combined US newspaper circulation was essentially flat while US household growth exploded. The Internet destroyed our business model, but the decline of newspaper readership has less to do with the Internet than it does newsrooms simply not knowing how to serve their readers. We aren’t going to make that mistake here.