Newspapers Aren’t Dead; New Era Beckons

My communications career began as a newspaper reporter so I will always have a great fondness for newspapers. I still receive mine each morning tossed in my.

Christofferson and Haddad

Brooke Christofferson and Richard Haddad discuss a new era for newspapers with NFPW. (Photo by Cynthia Price)

I’ve watched with sadness as reporters are laid off and newspapers fold. For years, it has been doom and gloom. During the NFPW 2012 Conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., I heard a different story – one that promises a new era for newspapers.

The focus is on community. “Gannett is producing content in local markets, embracing and being part of the community fabric,” said Brooke Christofferson, vice president of marketing and business development, Republic Media and Gannett West Group marketing director.

She noted that for years subscriptions only paid for the delivery cost. Today, newspapers are offering full access subscriptions that include the print newspaper and digital, which includes mobiles, tablet and desktop.

Christofferson said Gannett is investing in content and “how we tell our story.”

For now, individuals can go to Gannett newspaper website and view a limited number of pages. “Once they reach a certain point we want to have shown them the value of the content,” Christofferson said. “We want them to subscribe.”

She added, “The print product has an important place in society but to be viable we have to rethink our business model.”

Newspapers are valuable, echoed Richard Haddad, digital director of Western News & Information, because they remain the most trusted of the media. “Part of being trusted is being there,” he said.

“The news media needs to recognize the quality of what we do is worth paying for,” Haddad said. “It’s about credibility. It’s about reliability. It’s about trust.”

He is opposed to even offering free paragraphs to view online. He urged the use of compelling headlines to lure in readers. “We need to market our value and market our content better,” he said. “Your headlines are a promise to come in and deliver.”

Both stressed that content is king. And while I was encouraged about the future of newspapers, I am still waiting to hear when media companies are going to invest in the reporters.

5 Tips for Writing Great Headlines

Tip 1: Have a benefit that is clear.

That is exactly what I did with the headline on this post. I told you I was going to give you five tips for writing great headlines. Full disclosure: These are not my tips, but rather those of Richard Haddad, digital director of Western News & Info, who presented on the topic at the 2012 NFPW Communications Conference in Arizona.

Headlines that focus on benefits such as “better, easier and happier” will get more attention. Lists also are popular, Haddad said, because they become a “how-to” for readers.

Tip 2: Avoid the seven deadly flag words.

Haddad challenged his audience to write a headline with the following words: budget, council, agenda, meeting, taxes, discuss, still. We labored over the assignment but most of were thinking, “What do these words tell us?”

The answer, Haddad said, “is they don’t tell you anything.”

“A bad headline is a lid to a jar that will remain locked,” Haddad said. “If no one reads, all is lost.”

And yet the goal of a headline is to entice the reader into the article. His recommendation is for reporters to always submit two headlines when submitting a story.

Tip 3: Optimize your headlines for web readers and search engines.

You will need to inject keywords into the headline. “The headline alone must provide enough information scent to let users predict what they’ll get if they follow the link,” Haddad said.

As authors we have about three seconds to catch the reader’s attention, Haddad said. Using clear, immediate-read keywords to draw people into the story is essential.

Tip 4: Get the first two words right.

Haddad said it’s important to front-load headlines with compelling keywords, even if the headline is passive voice. Several audience members cringed at that having been taught to always write in the active voice. Yet, when Haddad showed several examples where headlines were written in the passive voice, it was obvious those examples were more compelling because the strong keywords were immediately recognizable. As Haddad said, “Get me the meat!”

This tip also holds true for subheads, summaries, captions and bulleted lists.

Tip 5: Write your headline first.

That’s exactly what I did with this blog. I reviewed my notes to confirm that Haddad had indeed provided the audience with five tips and that became my headline.

Haddad said more news writers should follow the practice of marketing copywriters, which is 50 percent research and 50 percent writing the headline. Of course, writers need time to write, but the point is – headlines are critical.

“Your headline is a promise to readers,” Haddad said. “Writing the headline first, commits you to fulfilling a promise.”

What if you attended a boring meeting? Haddad’s solution is simple, don’t write a story. Instead create a grid that outlines what was discussed and the actions taken. If one action stands out that becomes the story with a compelling headline.

I hope you agree that with the content of this blog I kept my promise to you that I made in my headline.