Live newspapers and dead deer

The last year has been a PR debacle for the newspaper industry, but some positive stories are trickling out. Last month Lisa Snedeker at Media Life wrote "Fact is, your average paper is just fine", pointing to the strengths of small-market newspapers. Today the Washington Post's Frank Ahrens offered up "Big Profits in Small Packages", detailing how "smallest papers, however -- community weeklies and dailies with circulation of less than 50,000 -- have been a bright spot in a darkened industry."

He quotes the usual explanation, which is that small papers face less competition from other media, especially the Internet. But I think the real reason is buried on page 2 of Ahrens' story.

It's the content. About people. People you know. I've written previously about the Dunbar number -- the 150 or so people in your personal circle. If you're likely to see someone you know in a newspaper, you're far more likely to pick it up and read it.

Ahrens tells how the La Crosse (Wis.) Tribune asks people to post pictures of their prize bucks on its website. Dead deer. And big fish.

Just about every metro daily in America does suburban zoning for advertising reasons, and just about everyone of them are screwing it up from a reader perspective.

The typical suburban operation is uninspired and under-resourced, staffed by editors who are just going through the motions and reporters who are either at the very beginning or the very end of their careers. The zones are far too large. To fill columns and get pages down to the plateroom, editors pick up stories from adjacent zones.

Boring. Lifeless. No people you know. No dead deer.

Mary Lou Montgomery, who edits the Morris-owned Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post, had an insight last year: In a misguided attempt to be "professional," newspapers were losing touch with the kind of neighborhood news that people wanted. She wrote then:

We don’t do dead deer.
We don’t use Polaroid pictures
We don’t print long lists of names, such as those attending a reunion.
We don’t use pictures without accompanying names.
We stopped inviting pictures of the first mushroom finds of the year.
We stopped taking pictures of the pee-wee league ball players.
We started downplaying the beauty pageants and baby contests.
We stopped printing happy birthday pictures of children as part of the news package.
We stopped paying correspondents to submit “chicken dinner” news.
We stopped taking pictures of newly elected club officers.
We stopped describing wedding gowns.

Somewhere between Watergate and Iraq, newspapers let go of the personal touch and replaced it with a more “sophisticated” journalistic style. In the meantime, we lost our loyal readers.

So she set out to reconnect with real people living real lives. She vowed to edit the paper for the people in her community, not for other journalists or contest judges or professors. She took wedding coverage back from the classified advertising department. She set measurable goals: a 2:1 local/wire ratio, based on headline counts. She started wearing tennis shoes to work, a symbol that she and her staff would "get up, get out and talk to people."

I gave her a call today to see how things are going.

"Have you seen Jack lately?" she asked, referring to publisher Jack Whitaker. "He's just a walkin' grin!"

Circulation is up. Complaints are down. Relationships with people in the community are the best they've ever been. "A local gasoline distributor told me the newspaper is more fun to read now. A retired secretary said she feels like she has her paper back. When the weather was still warm, people were literally chasing me down the street to offer story ideas and to tell me they liked what we were doing."

Live newspapers.

"And I'm happier than I've been in 25 years," she declared.


I found this blog through Mark Potts. thanks for the great story on how local weeklies are the rare exception. mary Lou montgomery is a savvy editors who is not afraid of honestly assessing and then addressing her paper's own shortcomings. Good for her.