Business of News: Instead of Ignoring Complaints, Newspapers Should Create Better Experiences For Readers

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My wife and I stopped for dinner at a nice locally owned spot that started as a breakfast and lunch place where you ordered at the counter. Now it has moved to larger quarters where waiters serve you and musicians play.

We ordered at 6:05 and settled in for what we thought would be the typical 12- to 15-minute wait. At 6:35 with no food or waiter in sight I asked for the manager who apologized, found out when our dinner would arrive, and offered to bring us wine at no charge. She owned it. She turned my thinking from “I can’t wait to write a crappy Yelp review” to “We’ll give this restaurant a second chance.”

But what do we do as newspaper executives when there’s a customer service complaint? Most of us (I am including myself during my 17 years as an editor of local dailies) are defensive and good at explaining to the complainer in words that basically say, “You’re wrong.” Very rarely, I suspect, do we own it and pledge to do a better job.

Is a customer-friendly newspaper an oxymoron? In a competitive world where we are losing ground, we could gain customers by treating them like we care. I’m talking about every customer from the home delivery subscriber who reads each word—from the digital-only crowd to the advertiser.

How would we be different if we actually considered what concerns our customers and changed the product to help them?

  • False information and phone stories plague our readers. Our websites could offer a “check it out” link that would take readers to Snopes.com or similar sites. If a reader wanted to dig deeper on a regular basis, Check Please offers a starter course on this. This grows more crucial because of the recent survey by Common Sense and Survey Monkey showing that teens get their news on YouTube from celebrities and influencers. There is not a lot of time left to teach them the skills of critical vetting.
  • Readers still call or email us asking us to print their news. In one stroke of genius, one of my newsrooms invented the “Say ‘Yes’ Editor” position. The job of Jim Wagner Jr. was to say yes when a person called to ask, “Can you get this in the paper?” Obviously, there were standards, but Jim’s job was to find a way to get the reader’s definition of news into shape for other readers and he did it extraordinarily well. Newsrooms of today are too tight for such a luxury position, but imagine if we changed our attitudes about letting readers help us define news.
  • My friend and former colleague John Temple addresses this need for ”a network of local-news organizations that can offer tools that enable local people to focus on the important job of telling their communities’ stories” in a piece about the GateHouse/Gannett deal in The Atlantic. While Temple’s piece does not get into the specifics, one interesting model I have previously written about is Mike Rispoli’s Free Press concept in New Jersey. It directly connects the readers to the journalists and creates an interesting partnership that leads to better local coverage that readers seek.
  • I’ll annoy some diehards with this but let’s bury our two-dimensional world forever. Our customers expect every bit of content in digital format. And not just a flat website. Creating searchability, interaction and visual candy is the key to making sure our great content finds an audience that keeps us in business. Daily emails that are heavy in news content and advertising readers want ought to be a must for each newspaper, not a luxury. Readers and advertisers expect this and deserve it.
  • There still is room for content improvement. I would start by reporting the problem and a possible solution to an important local problem. A TV news station in Pennsylvania is more than a year into its experimental newscasts that eschews cops and robbers for in-depth local news that focuses on resolutions.
  • Finally, I think we can take a lesson from retail outlets such as Kohl’s. Its stores’ sales are suffering so it invites fitness clubs and yoga studios into the store to share space. And if yoga lovers just happen to find active wear on their way in or out, so be it. Macy’s and J.C. Penney are now working with thredUP, an online store selling second-hand clothing for women and children. Can we become better for our customers by partnering with those whom we once considered threats?

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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