Improving Your Newspaper: No two papers are alike

June 20, 2023 |

By Kevin Slimp |

If you regularly read my columns, you know that I write about focus groups quite often. Don’t worry. I’m not writing bout focus groups today. However, I want to discuss another kind of group that I find beneficial to many newspapers I visit.

Now and then, I am invited to work on-site with a paper for several days or even weeks. On these occasions, it’s a safe bet that I will call the entire staff together for an hour or so to discuss some important issues.

Just last week, I worked on-site with a newspaper staff in Tennessee. Thanks to a government grant, it was my fifth visit with the team since January. Over that time, we’ve discussed just about everything you might imagine, from sales to reporting to design. As it was my last scheduled meeting with the staff this year, I asked that everyone be on hand for an afternoon meeting. We had folks from the front desk, reporters, editors, ad reps, designers, the press staff, and the publisher.

We began the meeting by discussing customer service, including ways to improve how we interact with our readers and advertisers. Next, I divided the staff into three random groups before sending them to separate rooms with specific instructions. I asked everyone to imagine he or she was the king or queen of the newspaper. Their task was to create a list of ideas they would enact to improve the newspaper.

I explained that their ideas could be about anything, not limited to the paper’s content. Groups were given 15 minutes to create their lists. I figured they would run out of ideas before they ran out of time.

Boy, was I wrong.

After 15 minutes, I walked to the various rooms to check on the groups. All three groups asked for additional time. After 30 minutes, I gave each group a 2-minute warning and gathered everyone back together.

I never expected so many great ideas to come out of one meeting. The groups gathered in the original room, and we discussed their ideas for 30 minutes or so. Most weren’t related to the newspaper’s content, but a few were. One group came back with ideas to increase circulation by targeting zip codes with subscription promotions. Another suggested staff members keep copies of the latest newspaper in their cars, so they could give them to potential subscribers they’d meet during the course of a day. One of the groups came up with the idea of finding a phone app that would allow them to handle new or renewed subscriptions on-site.

Story ideas came from the groups. Methods of interacting with subscribers were discussed. Before the 30 minutes ended, the group began planning a billboard campaign.

I was visiting with a friend earlier this week who asked me about the process of redesigning newspapers. I explained to him that I begin from scratch when I redesign a paper.

He asked the obvious question, “Can’t you just use a template you created from another paper and change the names?”

He was surprised when I told him that every newspaper is different. Every town is different. Every staff is different. The process of redesigning a newspaper – for me, at least – takes approximately 100 hours because every element is created from scratch. Sure, I could make a couple of templates and fill in the blanks for various newspapers, but that’s not how the process works. Just this week, I’m finishing the designs for two newspapers in Nebraska. Frankly, I’m exhausted. When we’re finished, however, the results will be worth the effort. They always are. The papers will receive emails and calls from readers about how much they love their “new” papers. Long-lost advertisers will call the papers about placing ads again. There will be a sense of pride in the communities. It happens every time. A cookie-cutter process wouldn’t achieve the same results.

That’s why I like to meet with the entire staff when I visit a paper. Sure, I could lead a slideshow on how to improve their paper. But the real results happen when the group gathers to discuss their town and paper. Let me suggest you gather your staff together to discuss ways to improve your newspaper.

Next week, I’m privileged to meet with newspaper publishers in Kansas. The folks at the press association tell me they’ve filled my schedule on Friday afternoon to meet one-on-one with publishers to discuss their papers. This is always my favorite time at a convention, seeing their work in their hometowns and finding ways to make their newspapers even more effective.

I see community newspapers thriving all over the map. I see it every day. I’m just glad to be a small part of the process.

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