How To Ruin Your Newspaper: An Instruction Manual

Ten easy steps:

8. Less editorial edge: On the editorial page, inch steadily toward a centrist position with the objective of avoiding the alienation of any individual or group to the point that angry readers start canceling subscriptions. Become convinced that if no one calls to complain about an editorial then that’s a good sign.

7. Rely on focus groups: Form a focus group of readers and assign more weight to its members’ ideas for coverage than to your gut instinct. Readers often have no concept of the public-service mandate newspapers strive to live by. Focus groups will ask for more coverage of the high school girls’ volleyball team or the best rides at the state fair. Indulge them their preferences and inevitably the newspaper will move away from bold, grab-’em-by-the-collar coverage toward scrapbook material.

6. Create new community-related projects: Expand the definition of a newspaper and play a bigger role in cosponsoring community events. Better yet, dream up new projects the newspaper can sponsor entirely on its own: a bridal extravaganza or a women’s expo. “Borrow” the city hall reporter for a couple of weeks to help coordinate the coverage. Hope that no one notices the sudden dearth of stories about city hall.

All ten are made of YEAH NO KIDDING, but these are my favorites because they’ve happened everywhere I’ve worked, especially #6. Let’s do some shiny new thing, instead of making sure we continue to do what we’re supposed to do! I have zero problem with sponsorships as a marketing tool, but you’ve got to consider whether what you’re sponsoring has anything to do with your mission. If all you get is your name on a poster, that’s not a good use of your money (or anybody’s time).

The linked list above focuses on ways newsrooms can add to the dysfunction ruling American newspapers, so I’d add a few items that address other departments’ all-too-common responses to middling declines in revenue, such as:

1. Deliberately undercut distribution: You have a product which is already appealing to fewer people. Let’s make it harder to find! Drop a few delivery routes. Stop filling a few newspaper boxes (but leave the boxes in place so people know you’ve given up on them). If people complain that they can’t find a paper, route them to circulation.

2. Speaking of circulation, staff it with untrained minimum-wagers, and hide them behind a confusing phone tree: That way, when someone does actually want the paper enough to call, they’ll be so frustrated in every attempt to hand you their money that they’ll give up and read your competitors, or just watch local news on TV.

3. Assume your website markets itself: More people are getting their news online! It’s a basic fact of our existence, so if you put your news online, everybody who might have read it in print will read it on the Interwebs! Forget that the paper is the best and in many cases the ONLY way your news organization advertises itself, or that areas with high housing turnover such as commuter suburbs bring in new people who don’t know you’re their local source. The Internet magically beams information into the heads of the people who need it and will let them know to visit your site each day. Being online will save you millions!

4. For that matter, assume your newspaper markets itself: There’s no need to spend any money telling people who you are, what you do, or where to find your product. Your area is going through a housing boom, but your circulation numbers are declining? Attribute it to chaos theory, not your lack of outreach to new homeowners.

5. Communicate changes to your customers after the fact, and assume they are idiots: Give no warning before reducing home delivery, and whatever you do, don’t give people who’ve paid for the paper their money back if they’re suddenly getting less service for their subscription dollars. An editorial in the paper you’re publishing less frequently and distributing in fewer places will suffice to let everyone know what’s going on. You could also send them a letter telling them you’re going to give them details really soon on how you’re screwing them over. That’s always a winner.

6. Above all, bitch loudly about your potential customers in the trades: Nobody reads anymore, the ungrateful bastards. All kids today care about is their iPhones, and they’d rather twerk than hear about local government. We used to have a country of responsible adults and now everybody under 30 is an idiot (and luckily will never get any older, so there’s no point in not pissing them off).

7. Never miss an opportunity to declare your primary money-making medium a dead dog: This in no way undermines your sales staff’s efforts to convince people to invest cash in print campaigns with your paper. Just keep telling them it’s a matter of time before the whole thing goes tits-up. This has the added bonus of informing local officials that you’re weak and if they want to screw over the journalists trying to keep them in check, now would be an excellent time. There’s really no way to lose here.

Feel free to add your own in the comments.


5 thoughts on “How To Ruin Your Newspaper: An Instruction Manual

  1. Ugh, your #1 is the biggest problem I have with how the Cardinal and Herald are handling their money issues. You used to trip over stacks of papers everywhere you went on campus, and now I go actual weeks between seeing a single paper from either organization.

  2. And, then there’s the all-time American favorite: you’re a fatcat businessman who wants the splash and cachet of owning a major newspaper, even though you don’t know fuck-all about running it (hey, it’s a bizness, right? Works the same as any other) so you go to Wall Street and create a leveraged buyout that saddles your new toy with insurmountable debt, and when the balance sheet immediately begins to look terrifyingly bleak, you raise prices and lay off newsroom staff, pick fights with the unions, whine about your readership and the holy hell that is the internet stealing your formerly egregiously expensive classified ad business.
    And then you start looking for another fatcat dilettante billionaire businessman to whom to sell your crumbling print empire.

  3. Hobbes, no kidding, I used to work for a paper that distributed where it didn’t cover, and couldn’t distribute where it did cover. It was immensely frustrating for the reporters, because they had people calling trying to buy a paper that included the story ABOUT THEM, and nobody could tell them where to go.
    It’s the easiest thing to do right and people fuck it up, all the time.

  4. Charge $1.50 for your daily and put it in boxes that only accept quarters. You’ve turned my formerly painless impulse purchase into a trip to the laundromat.

  5. Speaking as a reader and having no family in the news business: No editorial edge??? One of the things that papers have going for them is that I can find editorials that make me think. If no one calls up to complain or praise the editorial, it means no one is reading it.
    On a tangent, hate to point out a situation so full of negative potential. I assume you’ve seen where the already fluff HLN announced a makeover to make it more like social media.

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