Tips for making news pages smarter, at-a-glance

[FOLLOWING IS ONE OF SEVERAL HANDOUTS POSTED HERE ESPECIALLY FOR MEMBERS OF THE AWNA – BUT ANYONE IS WELCOME TO READ AND ENJOY!]

Sometimes it’s good to revisit the basics, as I had a chance to do this weekend as a speaker invited by the Alberta Weekly Newspapers Association in Calgary. I am reminded that there are still many, many weekly newspapers out there, they are doing fine (thank you very much), and are working hard to engage their communities and improve their products week by week.

The tough thing about presenting to community weeklies is I can’t really rely on past presentations where I showcase larger urban papers I have redesigned, nor international titles, nor the magazines that increasingly take up my work day. I could but it’s not so helpful. I have to get back to the basics of what makes a fundamentally engaging news page. Routine stories, partial inside pages often cluttered (thank God!) with ads … how do you take these to the next level? How do you do so with particularly limited resources?

Among the hundreds of pages I reviewed in advance of my visit, from the dozens of papers that make up the AWNA, I saw many, many “okay” stories that were presented by rote: town council meetings, personality profiles, annual festivals, presented in 10-14 paragraphs of text, a headline, maybe a photo – often a handout, a file photo or a quick shot at a press conference. But rarely anything more.

One of my presentations detailed how, with very little effort, the staffs could create a second level of information via an “at a glance” box that could connect with and serve readers in new ways. (Stop here if you’re one of the many who’ve sat through my lectures on the topic before, or endured similar training at the many papers who have gone this route.)

How does this work? Basically, consider a small sidebar that either pulls out of the story or creates from scratch a second level of information, with more precision and engagement than the main story might allow. Let’s dissect the following routine story, from the Airdrie City View weekly newspaper, in depth:

ACVtiny- Jan-16-2014-Section-A-Page-26

As is, the story contains some solid interviewing by reporter Lucas Punkari. But let’s imagine that we were to take just a small bit of real estate, and convert it to a simple graphic – really, just a small headline and text in a box – think of the supplemental stories you could tell, that could appeal to readers who scan the paper rather than read in depth. (But really, the goal is to appeal to both.) That space might look like this:

ACVtiny2- Jan-16-2014-Section-A-Page-26

What could you put in this space? It’s a great little community story, the sort that papers worldwide publish every day. As presented, I’d give it a C. OK, maybe a B. But how to elevate it to an A grade, something dynamic and more progressive, more engaging and helpful to readers? Consider using the glance box space for information such as the following:

  • Basic information: Her top honors, perhaps records broken. This is routine stuff, and some of it’s in the story, so doesn’t elevate the overall package all that much.
  • More advanced: Her secrets to making it to the top. Her training discipline, fitness routine or diet, sacrifices she might have made for schooling, work or family.
  • Inspirational: advice she may have for young girls seriously considering a life in gymnastics. (This is my favorite. It turns a “look at what happened to this person in the community last week” story into a “look how your neighbors can help you prosper in life” type of story.) How could you use a small sidebar to position her as a mentor in the community?
  • Supplemental: Is there YouTube video of her doing a routine? Or does the family have video? Very likely. Describe these here and send the readers to your website. If she blogs or Tweets (you never know), referencing this might be of interest as well.

When finished, the package could look something like this:

Screen Shot 2014-01-25 at 9.15.46 PM

The only way to do it? Certainly not, but a fun one to discuss in my presentation today.

* * *

Here are additional tips on getting your newsroom to think more in the real of “at a glance” boxes:

  • For personality profiles, consider: life-event timelines, series of quotes that might not have fit in the story, bio information such as education, hobbies, civic groups they belong to, the thing they like best about living where they do, where they’d like to see the town in five years. Always check to see if the person profiled has a blog or has a relevant Twitter feed or other social media presence; reference that or even publish excerpts.
  • For politics stories – town council meetings, issues stories – consider: what’s at stake, who wins/who loses, what happens next, key events in the drama (timeline), who’s involved, who said what, where can I find public records or supplemental info online, how can I write or call my elected official.
  • For stories on events, such as a fundraising auction: “If you go” information (time, date, place, cost, registration deadline), how to volunteer, where to donate items, who benefits, where to view the items online (perhaps use your own website to host a silent auction?)

From a production standpoint, it helps to have a pre-formatted text box that you can just “plug and play.” If you are using Indesign, either keep this on your template, or as a library item.

One final tip: Don’t wait until the story is written and edited and then “pull out” the information. This is wasted effort on the part of the reporter, fitting it in to the original narrative only to have it dissected late in the game. Instead, the ideal time to devise this content is while reporting is still taking place, or soon into the writing process. Plan a certain length for your main story, and a second shorter amount for the glance box, and communicate with the layout folk as to what’s coming. (They may have a cool idea for a visual to make the box even more informative or engaging.) Planning, teamwork and coordination all go a long way into inserting new work habits into your routine.    

To inquire about my  schedule or availability for speaking engagements – for professional organizations, universities or private media clients – email ron (at) ronreason.com. To see a partial list of speaking topics, link back to my website here. 

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