Grab some coffee. This is a long one. And read the Aug. 19 continuation of this topic here.
I recently left Patch, AOL’s brand of hyper-local news websites, and during my time there as editor of the Haverford-Havertown Patch and in different positions at various newspapers and magazines I’ve come to realize that there are many in high positions that have no clue about journalism.
So I thought I would write down a few bits of wisdom that I picked up, hoping to help those who want to start their own news websites/papers or those who are already have a job in the news industry. And while some will walk away saying “I already knew that,” hopefully others will say, “That’s good to know. I didn’t know that.”
Off the bat, this is important. Know your readers. What type of readers do you have? Do they like sports? Politics? Hard news? Soft news?
Granted, as a news outlet you need to feed your readers a well-balance diet of all this and more. There is no getting around that if you hope to have a news organization that does it right. But pay a bit of extra attention to the areas that your readers care about.
If they’re into sports, besides covering the games, get exclusive interviews with the players and coaches. Seems simple? You’ll be surprised how many don’t get this.
Also, aggregation can be a friend or enemy, depending upon your readers. (For those who aren’t familiar with the term, it means linking headlines/stories to the original source story.) I can safely say that just based off of the people who came up to me and my wife in the streets of Havertown, Pa., they didn’t want to hop onto my Patch site only to read a story written by the competition. As a few people have stated, “Why should I bother going to a news website if they are only going to send me someplace else?”
I’ve even had a municipal court judge tell my wife that she didn’t go onto my Patch because she thought it was nothing more than a blog that links out to The Philadelphia Inquirer. Once my wife explained to the judge that all of my stories were originally written by me and my freelancers she became a huge fan of Patch, even giving me a great news tip.
In fact, a lot of people thought Patch was something that I created from my parents’ basement and I was copying and pasting news stories from other places. Once I carefully explained that Patch was owned by AOL and that it was a news website (and a full-time job), you can actually see the respect show in their eyes and they quickly became readers.
Now I’m not going to debate the pros and cons of aggregated news but just based off of my experiences alone from Patch and other news places, I can safely tell you that original, good old-fashion news stories do win people over.
But you are in charge and not some boss who has never stepped foot in your area to report the news. If your readers don’t mind getting aggregated news, that’s fine too. But I can’t stress this enough: Aggregating the news shouldn’t replace old-fashion legwork. When the Penn State news website Onward State reported that Joe Paterno died much earlier then he did, major news stations and newspapers reported the same thing without checking out the source or facts.
However, I will say this: Don't use advertorials. I've worked at a few publications that have done this where the readers quickly turned the other way. Readers aren't stupid. They can smell BS a mile away and they don't want to be fooled into reading something that appears to be a news article but is actually an ad.
Any top 10 story usually reminds people of cheap, sensational stories that you normally find in the magazines at the checkout line at your local grocery store. “Top 10 Ways To Get Your Man To Pay Attention To You” or “Top 10 Ways To Get Your Girlfriend To Wear A Wonder Woman Outfit” or some other nonsense.
However, done well on a serious topic and not cheapen it with a sensational headline—These 10 Items In Your Kitchen Can Kill You, for example—can be very helpful to your readers.
And let’s throw in cute fluff stories about dog or cat photo contests or the best pizza shop. While having dinner with my friend this week he said he didn’t go to one of my former news employers because all he found was “soft” stories like I’ve mentioned here.
Sure, it’s OK to do these things sparingly, but there is no need to do it all the time. And these types of stories can leave a bad taste in people’s mouths and ruin your reputation.
And you need these fluff pieces sometimes because you don’t want to depress the hell out of your readers with stories about town council meetings, fires or what have you. It’s important that you remind your readers that they should have a little fun while reading the news.
OK, it doesn’t matter if you have a staff of full-, part-time or freelancers: Show them that you appreciate their hard work. These people cover long, often boring hours at council meetings or dig through numerous documents for an investigative piece or interview emotional parents who have lost their children due to either murder or cancer.
Show them that you care by simply saying, “Great job on that story. You really nailed it and it was a great piece of journalism.”
Trust me, it goes a long way. In one place I worked there was an editor who only praised a staff member if a reader happened to post a birth announcement or a blog onto the site. While these things are important, it really is nothing compared to the real news and feature stories the staff normally does. If anything, many of the staff felt less motivated to do any real news stories if they were only going to be praised because a reader post something.
Also, actually listen to your staff. If you ask your staff on ways to improve your product, don’t just listen to them and then ignore them and do whatever you want. At one place I worked at we had people on the ground all the time and when management came up with some way to get more readers, we knew right away it wouldn’t work.
And when that plan failed, they came up with something else that the staff knew wasn’t going to work either and they were right. Why? Because the staff knew what the readers wanted better than what management did. Sure, go to any industry and there are tales of management not listening to staff and failing at new levels. But guess what? If you are in a position of management you can stop this vicious and idiotic cycle.
It sounds like a broken record: Be fair and objective and cover both sides of the issue. Sadly, in the last few years I’ve seen that this isn’t always the case.
At one publication a business manager happily said that there shouldn’t be any objectivity in a story, only for the new publisher to agree with her.
I’ve seen feature stories attacking a politician without the writer asking the said politician or his campaign for comment and I’ve seen an editor post a controversial story without getting the opposition’s side. And when called about it the editor simply said that the opposition were worthless and shouldn’t be quoted.
To my horror I’ve actually heard management say that if you have a person who blogs for you that you don’t have to edit his or her work and just publish it right away. I wasn’t the only one unhappy with this as a few on the staff discovered that a few bloggers were plagiarizing.
When I said how irresponsible this practice was and that we wouldn’t dare run a story written by a reporter or editor without copy editing it first and that we should be looking over these blogs before they go live, all I got for my troubles was for management saying how “toxic” my comments were.
Not, “Gee Tony we didn’t think about that. Thanks for the help.”
Sorry, but if you’re going to be in the news-reporting business you can’t do it half-assed. It’s going to take time and you have to do it right and you have to leave your political biased at the door, no matter which side of the aisle you happen to sit on.
When I first started the Haverford-Havertown Patch, I knew right away that this was an area where the people wanted an old-fashion news place to find out what is happening in their community. Not only did I work hard at it, but I couldn’t have done it without the help of trusted freelance journalists and my co-workers. This is critical. You simply can’t do it yourself or you’ll miss out.
Now I’ve heard that even if you had a staff of a 100 people you can’t cover everything. And that’s true, but you sure as hell get a lot more than you do with no one. So remember, the more you have the better off you’ll be.
And with a staff—full, part or freelance—it gives you or them the time to do traditional investigative stories. You want to inform the readers about something important? It’s going to take time but it can be done. Another benefit to investigative stories is that they add to your credibility as a serious news outlet.
So there you have it. My manifesto as it was. Yes, there is a lot that I left out, but I thought what I stated here needed to be shared. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a lot of these issues have been boiling inside of me for a while now and while this column was extremely therapeutic, I sincerely do hope that a few people walk away here a little bit wiser.