Caring for our readers

Ed HenningerEditor Jerry Bellune and I go w-a-y back. We’ve known each other since the mid-1990s, when we worked together to breathe new life into a group of newspapers in New Jersey.

Jerry regularly writes a missive to the managers and staff at his newspapers here in South Carolina, and he shares those with me. For my column this month, I’ve decided to pass one of his pieces on to you.

It’s bigger than just design: It goes to the heart of what we do for readers.

From Jerry:

WHO DO YOU THINK is our first priority? Our readers, of course, you say. And you are right. Without readers, we are nothing.

Let me share with you a brief newspaper war story. When a smart publisher hired me years ago, he gave me a challenge: “We have a good newspaper for the 1940s,” he said. “But our people have forgotten who
they work for — and it isn’t me. Talk with everybody and let me know who mentions our readers first.”

This gave me a chance to talk with people throughout the building. I rode with truck drivers delivering our newspapers in early morning darkness. I talked with more than 100 reporters, editors and photographers. I visited our bureaus and went on calls with our advertising sales people. I asked them what they thought of the paper and what we could do to improve it.

Finally our tough, aging chief photographer said the magic word. “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with this newspaper,” he said bluntly. “Nobody here thinks about or cares about our readers anymore.” I could have kissed him.

We have not made this mistake here. All of us care about our readers. But caring for readers means planning, writing, photographing and editing for them. Here are three ways we do that:

  1. In our reporting, we leave no questions unanswered. We think like readers. We gather facts and question sources like readers. Readers want to know the “why” as well as the “what” of news.
  2. We think visually. How can we convey this information visually? we ask. We think about photographs, maps and charts as well as words in our planning. Readers want to see as well as read about the news.
  3. We write short, easy-to-follow stories and sentences. That means 250- to 300-word stories and sentences averaging 15 words. We segment lengthy stories into shorter segments. That helps readers understand
  4. what we share with them.

Do we not run longer stories anymore? Of course we do. Inside feature stories can go 500 to 750 words. We do not continue stories from one page to another as some thoughtless editors do. And this applies to
our electronic editions, too.

Readers lead busy lives. They have short attention spans. Let’s make reading our newspapers a pleasure for them.

JERRY BELLUNE has collected tips on editing, reporting and writing that he’s shared with his staff over many years in “The Little Red Book on Writing for Reporters & Editors.” Jerry is looking for suggestions to improve the book. He will send a digital copy to any of my readers who’s willing to read it and make suggestions.


Want a free evaluation of your newspaper’s design? Just contact Ed: (803) 325-5252.

Ed Henninger is an independent newspaper consultant and the director of Henninger Consulting.