Business of News: With Newspapers Back in the Game, How Can Publishers Hold On to New Readers?

By: Tim Gallagher

How can newspapers lose when they have John Oliver, Meryl Streep and Ali Robyn Petersen on their side?

The erudite TV host and the talented actress buoyed our spirits by defending the importance of journalists. And Ali, a sublime office manager and treatment coordinator at an oral surgery and dental implant center, subscribed to the New York Times. She had not been a newspaper subscriber for two years since quitting the Sacramento Bee, but when she heard President Trump repeatedly declare the Times “a failing newspaper,” she subscribed because “I felt the (Times) journalism was honest.”

Other newspapers can thank President Trump for a bump in circulation. Although audited print numbers will not be available for five months, national newspapers are reporting an increase in digital subscriptions and many local papers expect to report an increase in both print and electronic eyeballs. These trends reverse decades of declining circulation and household penetration.

So now that we have them back, how do we hold onto them? This is like that one time when your boyfriend/girlfriend gave you another chance because you promised to change. Now how will you change? How will you keep them when the daily news out of Washington is no longer as compelling as it is today?

Here are eight ideas:

Appoint a “bias” editor. Many readers think we are deliberately biased. Make it the job of one editor each day to proof that newspaper for instances of bias, loaded words, stories that are written with the angle decided before the facts are gathered. Make your daily report public and make eliminating bias your newsroom’s key goal.

Invite engagement. The Women’s March spurred people to participate in government by writing letters to elected officials. Make it easy for them to continue this. Add the physical and email addresses and telephone numbers of elected to every story about the council, the county board of supervisors, the state legislature and so on. Invite them to copy your newspaper when sending such letters and print them in a special place on your website.

Fact check. Fact checking the president’s statements is right, and it made us relevant. Continue this on the local level. Hold the statements of local leaders up to the truth meter.

Dig in. Readers savor investigative reporting that makes a difference. Forgive some family pride, but my brother just finished a series for the Albuquerque Journal on Mexican drug cartels that generated debate from Santa Fe to Washington. The Journal’s reporters set the agenda by incising rhetoric and reporting. And that’s how it ought to be.

Bring back compelling photojournalism. Yes, in an age when photo staffs are dwindling, this is a Sisyphean wish. But photojournalism moves us. We cannot let this die.

Pay attention to your readers who elected President Trump. His supporters thought he understood their issues and could relate to their struggles. Whether you agree is immaterial, but their struggles aren’t. Dig into those reasons why people voted for him and you will find a trove of stories: frustrations with government; layoffs; banks and lenders who don’t care about the little guy; school districts that seem to be fair to everyone except the middle of the road kid.

Hold ourselves to the highest standards. If you don’t think the president has a point about “fake news” allow me to introduce you to Brian Williams, Stephen Glass, Bill O’Reilly, Jayson Blair, et al. The public remembers those and a host of other errors made in the rush to be first. Good journalism demands relentless fact-checking. That is how we separate ourselves from the actual fake news sites. We demonstrate though continuous practice that we check the facts before we print.

Explain. Explain. Explain. Many Americans aren’t sure how a bill becomes law, how a Supreme Court justice is approved or even whether city council can deal with abortion laws. That lack of knowledge about government does not mean they are ignorant. They’re interested in how laws and regulations affect their lives. We need to break through our arrogance and explain government and how it runs.

 

Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at tim@the2020network.com.

 

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Published: April 24, 2017

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