If I Ran a Newspaper…

By Mike Feinsilber

On April 6, 2013, the Washington Post ran an editorial about a speech in Moscow by Mikhail Gorbachev, who ran the Soviet Union and presided over its demise. Gorbachev, 82, won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his efforts to bring democracy to the Soviet Union and to decentralize its economy. He got up from his hospital bed to deliver a lecture berating Vladmir Putin for retreating from democracy. “Politics is more and more turning into an imitation,” Gorbachev said. “All power is in the hands of the executive. The Parliament only seals its decisions. Judicial power is not independent. The economy is monopolized, hooked to the oil and gas needle. Entrepreneurs’ initiative is curbed. Small and medium businesses face huge barriers.” The Post editorial called the speech “crystal-clear, bold and uncompromising.”

What’s almost as remarkable about the speech was its treatment by the Post. I don’t think the paper carried anything about it until the editorial appeared a week later.  If I ran a newspaper, I like to think that wouldn’t have happened.

If I ran a newspaper, I’d call my editors together at 5 o’clock every evening and ask them to list the most interesting things that happened that day in the areas of their jurisdiction. Was there a photo so striking that everyone would be talking about it the next day? Put it on page one. Did the Washington Nationals, widely expected to be league champions come October, lose to the Cincinnati Reds by the humiliating score of 15-0? Put it on page one. Did a sinkhole in Florida swallow a man’s bedroom while he was in bed? Page one.

So my paper would publish the day’s most compelling news, even if weren’t the most important news by conventional standards. And the paper would give it whatever special treatment my editors could concoct.  Offer context, the history that preceded the event. Illustrate it well. Give it all the space it needs. Give the background and likely consequences. Make it interesting. And splash it on page one. Make it clear that it is an event worth knowing about when Gorbachev—the guy who closed down Communism in the Soviet Union and then dissolved the empire without bloodshed—warns his countrymen that all they’d won was being dissipated in a government where corruption was “colossal.”

Gorbachev was forced out in 1991. It’s likely that anyone born since 1977 never heard of him. Would readers under 35 care about what this guy said unless the newspaper provided context telling why his words were important?

Everyone knows that most of the nation’s 1,400 daily newspapers are on a death watch. (Newspapers do a lousy job of reporting even that story.)  Close observers of the news business predict that the printed, home-delivered, big circulation general-interest newspaper will disappear within 10 or 20 years.

The Newseum website—www.newseum.org/todaysfrontpages—shows hundreds of the front pages of today’s newspapers every day. Look at them and you’ll see that most put only local news on page one these days on the theory that local news is what they alone can offer readers and that local news is what readers most want. The Newseum’s display shows front pages with large headlines, lots of graphics and photos, lots of color, sometimes a bit of sensationalism—all done to draw readers away from so many other places where they can find the news. And to keep the papers alive.

That’s not enough, and they know it. Newspapers are still hemorrhaging readers and advertisers. They offer less and charge more. Many give away their reporting on the web.

Frank Rich, a veteran of at least four newspapers and four magazines, writing in the April 15, 2013 issue of New York magazine, makes a convincing argument that nothing can prevent the demise of print journalism. So I’m probably 40 years late in offering ideas for making traditional newspapers more appealing. Nonetheless, here are ideas for remaking newspapers so they’d be—surprise!—interesting. And so that readers would feel some connection to them.

For eons, newspapers have been remote and arrogant, the earmarks of monopolies. “You don’t like it? Cancel your subscription” has been their attitude. If I ran a newspaper, every phone call, email, letter or visit would get a response. It is disrespectful to the paying customers to ignore requests for a correction or to ignore letters to the editor. Every Saturday the Washington Post runs “Free For All,” a page of letters with readers’ grievances—grammatical mistakes, the failure to cover a soccer match, inconsistencies in what the paper said three months ago and what it says now. Those letters appear without comment from the Post. No explanation for why the paper did it the way it did. Do the editors read Free for All? Does anyone ever get chewed out?  Does the paper ask itself why it missed Gorbachev’s speech?

Forty-three years after the Post became one of the first newspapers to appoint an independent ombudsman, the paper has just dropped the position, replacing it with a “reader’s representative,” which sounds like a PR gimmick. The ombudsman, under no one’s supervision at the paper, took reader’s complaints, investigated, prodded to paper to acknowledge mistakes and misjudgments, and held the Post to account for its failings. And he or she responded to readers, publicly or privately. It made the paper a more human institution.

Writing on the NPR website, Edward Schumacher-Matos, the NPR ombudsman, said that by dropping the ombudsman the Post had “eliminated a position that builds audience trust precisely at a time that this fundamental and fickle quality—trust — in the Post and all American news media is declining.”

If I were running a newspaper, I’d run a box alongside every big story identifying the person behind the byline, with a photo, his experience and areas of expertise. Why should readers have to take it on trust that the reporter knows something about what he’s writing about? If the paper had a scoop, I’d let the readers know. If the story were complicated and involved serious digging, I’d run a how-I-got-this-story sidebar.  When a new staffer was hired, I’d run a story. People like to know whom they’re reading.

I’ve mentioned that my newspaper would run stories that are interesting. That’s subjective, but I know an interesting story when I see it, and so do you. Conversely, I’d give minimal space to stories that are important but not interesting. For those, I’d take a cue from the Wall Street Journal  which runs one paragraph no-nonsense summaries of the news in two 13-inch front page columns under the heading “What’s News. ”  A stalemate continues on Capitol Hill;  give it a paragraph. A once-famous TV actor dies—one graf. The stock market climbs moderately. Shelling continues in Syria. Obama says he wants to raise taxes on the rich. The UAW and GM agree to begin negotiations next week. A senator criticizes another. The future of the Euro looks shaky. The government may fall next week in Italy. It’s going to be a bumper corn crop, looks like. A Texas minister scoffs at climate change. The Post and other newspapers are full of stories like that, routine stories meaningful to some people, not meaningful to most, that newspapers print almost out of rote. Mine wouldn’t. That would leave space for the interesting stuff. Even when newspapers run interesting stories, they don’t promote them in ways that say “Hey reader; this is damn interesting.” Even the Gorbachev story wouldn’t raise many eyebrows if it were given run-of-the-mill, ho-hum treatment. Somebody’s got to grab the reader by the lapel.

Along the way, I’d change my definition of news. If it’s news to me, it’s news. Or if it interests everyone at that 5 o’clock meeting, if it’s something I’ll talk to the family about over dinner, if I’ll still remember it in a week, print it. I still remember that 15-0 shellacking the Nats took in the fourth game of the season.

Finally, I’d find money in the budget for all my editors and some of my reporters to take a reader and the reader’s spouse out to lunch or dinner once a month with the stipulation that they spend some time talking about the news and the newspaper. Reporters tend to do their extra-curricular eating and drinking with other reporters. How in-bred is that?

None of this is going to save the vanishing newspaper. But wouldn’t it be nice if papers were more interesting, more readable, more appealing, more useful and less like yesterday’s?


  1. Robin Loveman says

    Except for the part about taking readers to dinner, that’s how it was at every newspaper I’ve ever worked for. There’s a morning news meeting where editors discuss what they know is happening that day, and then another meeting in the late afternoon (not 5, because that’s too close to deadline, but usually around 4 p.m.) to discuss what actually happened.

  2. Yep, that’s pretty much how every day in the newsroom already goes — except for the whole “taking the readers to dinner thing.” Somebody needs to take ME to dinner instead.

  3. Baylee Gordon says

    Somebody buy this guy a newspaper. Quick!

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