Readers take note when newspapers focus on quality


By Kevin Slimp

The past few weeks have been a blur.

I remember driving along a beach in Florida, using a snow shovel for the first time during a blizzard in Minnesota, eating pizza with old friends in Iowa, and standing in front of audiences in two difference cities in New York.

As blurry as the weeks seem, there are several moments that were memorable from a newspaper perspective.

At one newspaper in Florida, the plan changed from leading classes to gathering the entire staff together for several hours of brainstorming, changing the editorial and design workflow in the process.

While at the offices of Coastal Breeze News in Marco Island, Florida, I had the chance to meet Gary Elliot. Gary has been everything from president of the Chamber of Commerce to board member of the island’s realtors’ association.

As we visited, Gary took the opportunity to share why Coastal Breeze News is so popular in a town with three newspapers.

“People want local news,” Gary told me. “The big daily doesn’t carry local news like the Breeze. People who live here pick up this paper, see the faces of the writers and say, ‘I know him’ or ‘I know her.’ It makes a real difference. That’s why people love this newspaper, and that’s why advertisers want their ads in this paper.”

The following week, I found myself in Des Moines, Iowa, speaking at one of my favorite conferences. We even had a full house for the early Saturday session.

What seemed to interest attendees the most?

Improving the quality of their papers.

I didn’t hear any talk of reducing staff sizes or cutting costs.

This group seemed to know the secret: Improving quality. Quality of design. Quality of writing. Quality of service.

Do you want to increase readers, advertisers and profitability? The first and most important step is improving quality.

The journalists know that in Kasson, Minnesota – where they also get late-season snow storms.

The year 2015 was the “year of blizzards” in my life, but I dodged the weather bullet in 2016 … or so I thought.

Kasson was my next stop after Des Moines, and I woke up to find my car buried under a mound of snow.

We had almost cancelled the trip due to the approaching weather. We agreed at the last moment I would board the flight in Knoxville and head to Minnesota, arriving just before the storm.

We spent three days running press tests, holding classes and discussing workflow. I love it when a staff wants to learn.

The group in Kasson asked me to stay late each day so we could look at their individual workstations, find solutions to technical problems and discuss hardware upgrades and improvements.

Imagine my thrill a week later, when I heard from one of my new Kasson friends. The printing quality of their newspaper had improved drastically.

“The pictures are crisp, the dot gain is perfect and the color settings are right on target,” my friend said.

Borrowing an old line from Ford, quality really is job one.

Reduce quality, and the result is fewer readers.

Reduce readers, and the result is fewer advertisers.

Reduce advertisers, and the result is fewer pages.

Reduce pages, and the result is even fewer readers. It’s a never-ending cycle.

Finally, there was the Empire State. I made stops in New York to speak at two newspaper conferences.

In Rochester, I spoke about my latest newspaper survey that indicates newspapers are holding steady. Afterwards, one publisher after another stopped me to tell me how the research mirrors what is happening at their own papers.

The key, most everyone seems to agree, is improving, not cutting.

A few days later, in Saratoga Springs, I led eight classes for editors, designers and others. Between each class, I found publishers waiting in the lobby, wanting to talk about where they should take their papers. Some were from tiny papers. Some owned large groups.

In my travels, I was also able to meet with an industry executive from a major group in Europe and a newspaper industry leader in Canada. Both talked to me about the danger of ever-growing groups of national corporations buying papers and stripping them down.

I am concerned the newspaper industry in Canada is already in great danger of collapsing under the pressure of corporate ownership.

Fortunately, in the United States, there are far fewer newspapers owned by large corporations. Large national or regional groups own only 16 percent of papers here, compared to a much higher number in Canada.

Want your newspaper to grow? Resist the short-term fixes, and look toward the long-term.

Quality is what matters. Content is what matters. Service is what matters.

Cut those, and you can be sure you will cut readers.

Kevin Slimp works as a newspaper industry trainer, speaker, writer and consultant.