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Ten ways to keep your readers.

When George Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot engaged in last fall's first election debate, Maine's Portland Press Herald didn't just cover the story. It layered it.

The paper's presentation included: * A five-word banner headline * A 25-word subhead in sentence form * A head shot and breakout quote from each candidate * A four-column photo with cutline * A breakout box summarizing the juiciest exchange * A 24-inch main story * A 23-inch local sidebar * A 26-inch analysis sidebar * Inside coverage including two photos, historical background, another sidebar, six key boxed quotes and a schedule of future debates.

Portland editors define layering as presenting material "in multiple, sometimes overlapping pieces using a variety of visual and text-organizing techniques." Its goal is to let the newspaper "provide depth and brevity at the same time."

Layering is one of many innovations that illustrate a crucial point: Succeeding in the future isn't so much a matter of choosing one out of several competing strategies as it is following many tracks simultaneously. The new newspaper will probably not seem like one homogeneous publication. More likely, it will be a home information companion, containing an assortment of helpful materials aimed at a variety of audiences.

Given this philosophy, here are 10 strategies that could help propel newspapers toward a more secure future:

1 Because consumers have everbroadening interests, newspapers should continue expanding the definition of news and enhancing diversity in sources and topics.

News is relevant information the public needs, presented when it needs it. While traditional topics such as government and business remain important, newspapers are increasingly acknowledging that many subjects once shunted aside as too "soft" may well have more relevance to contemporary life. This trend will entail more coverage of lifestyles, relationships, consumption, personal finance, careers, leisure, families, youth culture, the environment, religion and, importantly, other media.

It will require new beats, coverage strategies and management structures to broaden the news network: less coverage of institutions and processes, more attention to trends and patterns; less reliance on officials, more variety in sourcing, particularly to raise the proportion of women, young people and members of minority groups mentioned and pictured. And it will involve sometimes painful adjustments in news judgment for professionals conditioned for years to equate news with government and politics.

In short, holding New Readers requires presenting New News.

2 Because information is proliferating faster than individuals can keep track, newspapers should more completely summarize and spotlight data available elsewhere.

Newspapers can no longer think of themselves as complete information packages or even as primary providers of the news. Instead, they should become the consumer's all-important first stop on a long day's journey into data.

That doesn't mean newspapers should stop original news coverage. But they also should position themselves as society's foremost information indexers, the best directories for scanning and scoping the information universe.

Once, newspapers resisted printing television and movie schedules, fearing they aided the competition. Eventually, papers realized that such listings enhanced their own readership. Today, the same principle holds: Newspapers can become the best available guide to their competitors' array of products.

One good start would be to increase calendar and listing services. In addition to the arts and entertainment guides that most papers publish already, they could add listings of many kinds: new computer bulletin boards, online information sources, the hottest new catalogs, changes in local restaurant menus, upcoming kids' sporting events, next weekend's sermon topics, the timetable for new tapes and disks to reach local stores.

The press should also more faithfully synopsize other media, such as local television newscasts, magazines, broadcast and cable telecasts, specialized journals, business newsletters, hobby publications, computer databases, government documents, academic publishing, underground media and numerous other data sources.

3 Because of the complexity and confusion in today's world, newspapers should offer increased commentary and context.

More and more, journalists will be seen as information experts, just as bankers are relied upon for financial expertise and jewelers for appraisals of gems. While it would be foolish to turn every article into a personal opinion essay, it will probably become necessary to abandon the view that journalists are dispassionate automatons simply dispensing information and letting readers reach their own conclusions. In the information age, what sense can it possibly make for journalists to research subjects with increasing thoroughness and expertise and then hold back their conclusions, depriving readers of what may be the most trustworthy, studied assessments available anywhere?

This is as frightening a change as journalists are likely to encounter, and it will require better trained reporters and, especially, editors to manage the distinction between professional assessment and personal prejudice. Washington Post magazine writer Walt Harrington calls it the "willingness or need to wrestle the piles of conflicting and seemingly disconnected information into a shape that's not only true and accurate but also makes interpretive sense."

But it will pay off hugely if newspapers capitalize on their ability to provide greater depth than their rivals, including perspective as well as detail. More explanatory journalism and less raw data journalism can do as much as anything to bring audiences back to newspapers as a prime source of coping with an unnerving world.

4 Because generic newspaper writing seems outmoded and bloodless, newspapers should employ a wider variety of story forms and voices.

The 15-inch inverted pyramid article has served for decades as a steadfast model. But the future belongs to shorter items (digests, lists, capsule reports, text-and-graphics) and to longer ones (assessments, trend projections, dramatic narratives, personalized columns, first-person accounts). Inverted pyramids work well to convey messages that are important and brand new.

Less and less newspaper copy meets both those tests, yet newspapers plod along with the formula, trying to strain both a narrative storyline and an informational factline into one contorted form. For today's audiences, it will often make sense to offer both kinds of writing: the brief factline for the scanners, the compelling storyline for the readers.

Think what happens when you ask readers who their favorite newspaper writers are. Almost invariably, they reply with the name of a columnist--someone allowed to write in a recognizable voice. To more directly connect with readers, newspapers need to showcase writing of all kinds: more voices, more personality, more columns in which, for example, young people talk to other young people in their own language.

Des Moines Register Editor Geneva Overholser has said that "all too often, a story free of any taint of personal opinion is a story with all the juice sucked out." Speaking at the University of Southern California, she recommended more journalism "that makes you laugh, weep, sing, hope, and wonder how people can go on."

5 Because consumers read in more than one way, newspapers should increase layered coverage, often to the point of presenting more than one version of key articles.

Many papers, from the Portland Press Herald to the Los Angeles Times, already have a head start in this direction.

Employing contemporary design, newspapers can attract various kinds of readers by using different presentations, more detailed headlines and subheads, and better-coordinated art, headlines, subheads and text.

For news stories, it should become routine to accompany a headlined article with a subhead that more adequately gets across the significance and a boxed checklist of the most important points. Through this simple service, readers could immediately grasp the scope and then choose to scan for the highlights or read fully for the details.

Depending on an issue's importance, papers might provide a brief news summary, a longer elaboration of key points, a magazine-like dramatic narrative, an explainer geared to young people, a mega-graphic overview. They could be packaged magazine-style, or spread through different sections aimed at different audiences.

6 Because consumers use newspapers in many different ways, newspapers should vary their formats from section to section. Start with an easy-to-approach main section that digests key, need-to-know news, sports, business, entertainment and other material. This would be the quick-reference first stop.

Inside sections, designed specifically for particular target audiences, could offer specialized, deeper coverage. While the front section might have the dynamic feel of a breezy executive digest, the inside sections could feature magazine-style design, tailored to various subjects and audiences.

An entire section, for example, might be given over to investigating the problems facing local Latinos, as the Stockton Record in California has done, or to a gripping series like Thomas French's look, in the St. Petersburg Times, at a year in the life of high school students. Or to an occasional compilation of every youth baseball league's all-star team, or 10 top research projects from the local university, or safety inspections of local bridges.

Some sections might appear daily (local news, a daily magazine, sports), and others occasionally (a weekly section on family and relationships, a section showcasing a local or national problem, an extraordinary presentation of literary journalism).

7 Because consumers have different needs, newspapers should consider customizing themselves for each reader.

Why should everyone receive the same newspaper? Newspapers could, for instance, offer subscribers the main wrap-up news section and let them select from a menu of other options (neighborhood news, sports, a literary supplement, a nightlife guide, a buyer's guide, a midweek magazine, a local government monitor, a teenagers' section).

Needless to say, this will create serious production and distribution challenges. But to yield to these problems would amount to a concession that newspaper technology cannot keep up with changing society. And that could be fatal.

8 Because of growing alienation and isolation in society, newspapers should renew their commitment to watchdog journalism.

And they should broaden it to institutions beyond government (such as private industry, the health care colossus and, of course, the media).

Readers expect newspapers to gratify their desires for daily news and entertainment. But they expect attention to the long-range interests of society as well, including investigations and sober coverage of local, national and world issues.

Watchdog journalism can be expensive and controversial. But no other medium can do it like newspapers. Few qualities of the newspaper can contribute as much to the long-term hold on audience loyalty than cornering the market on this kind of leadership.

9 Because of reader perception that the press is boring, newspapers should embrace, not resist, sizzle and pizazz.

Perhaps this will be a happy byproduct of expanding the definition of news, experimenting with writing and more fully developing graphics. But as a goal, it should stand on its own. Newspapers should be more fun to read.

Yet how many journalists do you know who disdain the frivolous as some kind of desecration of the temple? Where did we lock onto the loony idea that serious journalism means boring journalism?

Serious work can be presented in an engaging fashion--just consider the runaway success of the well-written, artfully presented Philadelphia Inquirer series "America: What Went Wrong?" And seemingly trivial items can make their point--just read "Doonesbury" and other topical comics.

10 Because newsrooms need reinvigoration to meet these challenges, they should get serious about such festering issues as diversifying staffs, improving newsroom management, reducing stress and burnout and enticing and retaining the brightest talents.

Reforming content may be easy compared to changing the internal newspaper environment. But I think most journalists know that the macho sweatshop climate has prevailed for too long and that its costs have become excessive. Too many people flee the business before age 40, and almost none return. Too many potential young stars take their talents elsewhere, for more money and appreciation. Too many newsrooms throb with negativity and embitterment.

If newspapers are to become more rewarding, then newspaper work must become more rewarding, and that will require management to provide more support, more time, more staff and more money. Otherwise, it will be only hypocritical bleating for an industry making above-average profits to continue shorting newsroom budgets and then loudly and grandly worry about its future. "IF THERE WERE NO newspapers, there would be no common activity," Alexis de Tocqueville wrote over a century and a half ago. "The newspaper brought them $(people$) together, and the newspaper is still necessary to keep them united."

De Tocqueville wrote before television, computers and fax machines, but his point still stands. A central, convenient mass medium remains vital to the American way of life, and newspapers own the franchise until they fumble it away.

As changes emerge, journalists start out with the upper hand in setting direction. But if they falter, the marketers stand ready to seize the tiller. Luckily, the journalists have a critical advantage: a heritage of understanding and serving readers. Now they must be smart enough to use it.

AJR Senior Editor Carl Sessions Stepp, 43, began his newspaper career at age 14 by walking into the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, announcing he'd come to be a reporter. Amazingly, the editor sent him to cover a baseball game.

He majored in journalism at the University of South Carolina, reported briefly for the St. Petersburg Times, then spent 10 years as a reporter and editor with the Charlotte Observer. He joined USA Today as an editor during its first year in 1982. In 1983, he moved to the University of Maryland faculty, where he teaches reporting and editing.

Stepp is the author of "Editing for Today's Newsroom" and frequently serves as a visiting writing and editing coach for newspapers around the country.
COPYRIGHT 1993 University of Maryland
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:newspapers
Author:Stepp, Carl Sessions
Publication:American Journalism Review
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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