Sam Smith, 2006 – It’s been about 17 years since I last offered any advice to Don Graham of the Washington Post. He wasn’t interested. Oddly, about a year later, the circulation of American newspapers, including the Post, began a slow decline that continues to this day.
This morning, however, I was so struck by the thin size of the Post that I actually compared the number of pages of the major sections from the previous week: there were five less. So now I actually feel sorry for the guy and would like to pass on a few more ideas:
– Newspapers early surrendered the image battle to TV when, in fact, TV only shows images for a few seconds at which point they are gone forever. Newspapers should go back to the approach to photos that made Life Magazine so appealing: images that made you stop and look either because of the quality of the photo or because of the story that a series of photos told. When, for example, was the last time you let a photographer edit your page design?
– Dump the Pulitzer porn such as your recent series on black men. That dreary combination of abstractions, stats and not all that interesting stories makes for poor journalism, especially over breakfast. Besides, you can’t make up for years of ignoring the problems of black men with an occasional series even if it does win a prize.
– Put news on your front page. I define news as something that has happened, something that is happening or something that is going to happen. News is not what someone said about what is happening nor what someone perceived was going to happen nor what the editors thought the impact of something happening would be on its readership.
– The one exception to filling the front page with news would be a story or two that are just interesting, which is to say ones about which readers will ask their friends, “Did you see that story about. . ?”
– Use the “holy shit” principle of news editing. If your reaction to a story is “holy shit” and the story is true, many of your readers are going to feel the same way.
– Run more and shorter stories. You can get the edge over both the Internet and TV through quantity rather than just style of news. And the more names the better.
– Run more local stories, more stories affecting different ethnic groups, and more stories about sports people play rather than just watch.
– Go back to pyramid style reporting or at least get to the point within the first paragraph or two.
– Stop burying stories that affect ordinary readers in the business and real estate sections and put them in the front of the paper where they belong.
– Run more stories that affect ordinary readers. Handle your news from the viewpoint of your readers rather than from that of your advertisers, sources, or journalistic staff – few of whom live in some the toughest yet newsworthy parts of town.
– Have a labor section as well as a business section. After all, you have more employees than employers in your circulation area.
– Slash the number of stupid, spinning, or sophistic quotations from official sources used in your paper.