Building a better newspaper
Assuming the weather didn't freeze us all where we stood, a number of the faces in your local newsroom will have visited Des Moines to receive their various awards at the Iowa Better Newspaper Association Convention and Trade Show this past weekend. Sometimes its the individual writer, photographer or editor who gets their name on the plaque (designers should get individual credit for their work, but don't for some reason – feel free to lobby the INA). Other times, it's the paper as a whole that wins, but the purpose remains the same either way — better newspapers.
If you take a look at archives of any local paper, you'll see things have changed — at least I would hope they have — and things will continue to change. It wasn't uncommon for papers in this region to have a front page devoid of photographs through the 1940s and '50s. I assume wartime costs had something to do with that, but photos weren't too common before Pearl Harbor either. I dug up an archive with a portrait of President William McKinley which seems to have been drawn by hand and etched into a printing plate. Still, the accompanying story titled "President succumbs to murderer's bullet" was buried on page three of the since-absorbed Milford Mail's Sept. 19, 1901, edition — all but two columns of the edition's front page were devoted to advertisements.
My point is, there's been a bit of a shift in thinking as to what makes for effective local coverage. Your front page is now dominated by photos and bylines. Not only that, the subjects on the front page are those closest to you — business happenings, changes at the local school, the community's influence abroad. If a story of national significance graces page one, you can bet your bottom dollar there's a local connection — an area family who witnessed a major event, a community graduate who walked the red carpet, how a downtown business is coping with federal mandates on their industry.
And right alongside this shift in focus ran the need for continued development. If it means a headline's font gets a little extra color or the text of a story gets overlaid onto a well-composed feature photo, that's what the paper will do to keep the emphasis on the local. And it starts from the ground up. Everyone in the newspaper office has a hand in it. You can't highlight a good photo, if there aren't any good photos to be had. You can't play off a headline's phrasing if the words are mundane. You can't have an effective local advertisement if the copy isn't printed clearly. Most importantly, you can't expect to hold a reader's attention if the paragraphs detailing your local community are run of the mill.
So, take out your score card. Ask what your local newsroom, their sales staff, designers and everybody else took home this week (though I'm sure some of their valuable print space was devoted to that information). I don't say all this to be a braggart. I say this because, as the newspaper association told us last year, Iowa has the most newspapers per capita of any state in the county. So it stands to reason, if the folks at your local paper take one of the top three slots in their class for any given category, they're doing right for the community.
Those award-winning photos are of you. Those eye-catching headlines are about you. Those advertisements are promoting you.
While the paper on a large scale is about pursuit of true information — the good, the bad and the ugly (but not the Oxford comma) – the paper is also about you.
Awards are great, but they're really a reflection of a priority. You see, the purpose of the newspaper association isn't to show who is better than the rest. It's to show papers across the state how they too can be better in their own communities when they return home. So go ahead. See how this paper stacks up against others its size. Keep an eye on what it does to improve itself in the coming months, years and decades. Keep up on your subscription so the people behind the product can continue making improvements and better tell the story of this community.
A better newspaper is about you, and the best newspaper will always have your support.