How to save your local newspaper

Six steps for staving off the death of print
By STEVEN STARK  |  February 12, 2009


It's no secret that daily-newspaper journalism is in huge trouble. The demographics are terrible; the young don't read daily papers. The Internet has radically altered the distribution of news and classifieds, as millions have abandoned the newspaper (with its daily cost) for the free delivery of news and personal advertising on the Net. Meanwhile, newspapers' ad base has been devastated by the current financial crisis.

The response of almost every paper in the country has been to cut personnel — and then keep cutting. The predictable result has been the opposite of what's needed: most papers are now far less worth reading than they were a decade ago — this at a time when they obviously need to become even more attractive.

What can they do? Here's a six-step road to revival for your favorite local paper (the nationals, such as the New York Times, get their own revival plan in a later column):

1)If further cuts are absolutely necessary, stop using voluntary buyouts for cuts and start laying off people. Sad but true: buyouts may be fairer, but the people who accept them are often those with the journalistic talent to find a job elsewhere. That leaves papers with a large collection of their least-productive employees. That's no way to start a revival.

2)Ruthlessly eliminate from the paper anything that can be produced better and more cheaply elsewhere. Again, unfortunately, that means a lot of what many daily papers produce at home will be outsourced, so to speak — to wire services, freelancers, and Web services like the new Global Post. Eliminate in-house production of all national and international news, most business news, and all movie, TV, and music reviews. The same goes for all columns that don't deal with local situations — unless the columnist has an exceptional national voice.

These subjects will still be in the paper. The paper's staff just won't produce them.

3)Beef up local and sports coverage. This is what regional daily papers can uniquely provide. And they should. That means that serious thought should be given to turning such papers as the Boston Globe or BostonHerald (my two local newspapers) into sports papers with news sections, rather than the other way around.

The truth is that sports papers around the world are still hugely successful. Yes, the National failed here almost two decades ago, but that's because Americans follow their sports locally, not nationally. A local version could well prove a success.

4)Follow the example of The Week magazine and provide daily readable syntheses of the news. There's too much information these days for any reader to keep up with. That's where something like The Week — a weekly magazine that entertainingly amalgamates the news, — or Slate's daily condensation of what's in the major papers, or the Wall Street Journal's Daily Fix of the best of the nation's sports columns, comes in. Readers would love to get a morning collection of "the best and the brightest" on their doorstep in a form they could read quickly. There's no reason why newspapers can't produce it for them.

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