My recipe for newspaper success: investigative stories & good news stories. What’s yours?

I’ve looked at the front pages of newspapers big and small around North Carolina for a few years now and, I’ve come to a few conclusions.

For anyone interested in news — even only with a nodding acquaintance with it on a daily basis — much of what is in the paper is actually “olds,” to steal someone else’s term.   (And by nodding acquaintance, I mean someone who catches the headlines on TV or the radio or social media. If you’re not in that category, you probably don’t take the newspaper anyway.) Much of what is on the front page isn’t new news. It could be new information, but it’s often not news in the old-fashioned sense of “this-just-happened-and-it’s-important. For instance, the top story today in Greensboro is an interview with Rep. Howard Coble, who announced his retirement on Thursday. In Winston, it’s a follow-up on student test scores, released on Thursday. In High Point, it’s a salute to a veteran.

All fine stories, but none breaking any big news.

In fact, the Veterans Day story is typical of another trend. Almost every Sunday, newspapers publish similar stories on their front pages. Today it was stories about veterans. Last week, it was stories about Election Day. Same thing three weeks ago. A month or so ago, it was Obamacare.

Again, all fine stories, but hardly stories that are unique to newspapers or that drive newspaper readership.

Newspapers have gone local, sometimes intensely local, which makes sense. What makes less sense is how so many have opted for quantity over quality. Reporters pump out stories as if they are getting paid by the word, which, in a way, they are. But with smaller staffs, that means that reporters are writing more easy commodity stories — stories that journalists call “turn of the screw,” meaning that something happened, but that it isn’t that important.

I suggest they zag in the other direction: deliver more by producing fewer stories. Make them top quality and aimed at serving what I want. (I being the reader.)

Try this exercise: Ask readers — it won’t work if editors do this by themselves — where do you want us to focus? After they rattle off half a dozen, tell them to narrow it to two. Two is enough, given the number of reporters you have. We’re talking focus here.

My choices: investigative reporting and good news stories. And, I bet I’m not alone in that.

Investigative stories focused on how government operates, or doesn’t operate, fits most reporters’ sense of duty. They fit the idea that the purpose of journalism is to provide the information citizens need to be free and self-governing. They fit one of journalism’s principles to monitoring power. They are distinctly relevant to citizens. And stories about malfeasance, about over-reach, about crime also sell papers.
I include good news stories because people love them. What goes viral? Stories, photos and videos that make you smile or feel better about themselves. People want to share them and talk about them. Simply stated, they’re good for business.
Not every story you’d publish would fall into this category, but if you can eliminate stories you write because they’re there or because you have a story quota or because you need to fill space, then you’ll have time to invest in stories that will make a difference. My sense is that newspapers publish a ton of information — much of it useless or easily obtained elsewhere for free. Meanwhile, you have people paying you to provide them with unique content. And that number is getting smaller.
By the way, the same thing can be said about your websites. Distinguish yourselves.
By the way 2, there is currently a discussion on my Facebook page as to whether my newspaper, the News & Record should follow up Coble’s retirement with an examination of his record and how his votes actually served his constituents. This is the kind of journalism I would like to see.
Try zagging instead of zigging.
Update: John Kroll has a smart take here pn good news.

7 thoughts on “My recipe for newspaper success: investigative stories & good news stories. What’s yours?

  1. Investigative stories: government, but not JUST government. News media need to be a watchdog on any wielder of societal power and influence, be it government, private for-profit, private nonprofit, the rich, or even charismatic but non-rich individuals.

    Corollary: Don’t waste your limited time, staff and resources on institutions or people who are talked about but don’t actually wield much power and influence. Such institutions/people frequently constitute Shiny Objects intended to distract the news media and public from the really important stuff that powerful people and institutions would prefer that you not know about.

  2. Pingback: What's so bad about reporting good news? - John Kroll Digital

    • Thanks, John. I think you need to hire specific people for the job. Lots of writers like to write stories with positive outcomes and messages.

  3. John, I agree. I am lucky to have a publisher who agrees, as well. I edit two monthly business magazines in South Carolina. My publisher told me last week to stop worrying about the editorial budget and start producing more one-of-a-kind business stories that are compelling reads and put us out front of the competition. Her theory is the only way we can dominate the market is with high-quality editorial. How’s that for novel thinking?

  4. This has been our model for 25 years. We are the dominant paper in our community specifically because we focus on local, investigative journalism. And we’re a weekly, getting the best of the ages old daily. It’s rare to read a story from us simply about what happened in a public meeting. But we’re happy to tell our readers why it happened and why they should care.
    I’m currently in the middle of an investigation into an enormous Ponzi scheme which has every bit of drama and sordid detail one could want. The schemer even committed suicide during my investigation. Needless to say, we have the attention of the community every week.
    If you’re working at a paper with a quota coupled with a restrictive word count, or an over-reliance for wire news over local reporting, you need to either shake up your newsroom or find a new place to call home. If making the meeting is more important than finding a fresh story, you’re wasting your talent. And if you aren’t giving the reader a reason to care about what you write, find another career.

  5. Pingback: News organizations: Break the paradigm & choose your niche | Media, disrupted

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