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Trying to sell newspapers?
As a matter of fact, yes

By Rob Karwath, Executive Editor
Duluth News Tribune

When readers call to complain about a story, headline or photograph in their newspaper, they'll often close their argument this way: “You're just trying to sell newspapers.”

For a long time, we journalists blanched at that allegation and began the backpedal. We'd deny it. Or we'd say something noble about fulfilling our public service mission by covering the news.

I'll be blunt: We are trying to sell newspapers. If we didn't, we wouldn't have jobs and the community wouldn't have a newspaper to complain about.

Yet we want to do it responsibly, especially in a community where I don't think sensational journalism is a successful business model.

I mention this because of changes you've seen recently in your News Tribune. We've been working with a consultant, Alan Jacobson of Brass Tacks Design, a Virginia company that has helped newspapers across the country and around the world be more successful. It starts with being relevant.

For months, we've been talking with Jacobson and trying to adopt some of his concepts. Recently, he came to Duluth to spend a week working with us. His message: Put content in the paper that your readers will find so compelling that they have to pick you up every day.

Get people talking. Be the buzz in the community. Highlight content that relates to readers' money, kids, safety and health. Even their sex lives. (Yes, I said it.)

Before I go further, let me assure you that your News Tribune won't become the National Enquirer. Judging by some recent calls and letters, a few readers think we're already there.

There was the Page One photo of the college students in swimsuits, two of them with alcoholic drinks in their hands, next to the headline that said, “They're back – 23,540 students.”

Some readers complained that we were encouraging drinking. Others thought we were trying to sell papers with scantily clad young people.

If that were the only part of the back-to-college story in our paper, we'd have been guilty as charged. It wasn't. The cover directed readers inside to a story about students returning to our seven local colleges and universities. Making that connection might have been difficult for some readers, however, because we did not identify the students on the cover as part of a larger group partying in public along 21st Avenue East. Like it or not, parties are part of the annual campus return ritual.

Since we've started working with Jacobson, our headlines also have become bigger and bolder. The goal isn't to hype stories but rather to make sure potential readers see them – and buy the newspaper. One place we sell them is in curbside boxes. If you can't read the main headline from a car length away, Jacobson says, you're not compelled to consider buying the paper.

So on Aug. 27, a Page One story about the city of Duluth considering selling the Minnehaha stained glass window to help fill a budget gap carried a huge headline asking, “Can she save the city?”

Jacobson notes that it's not all about presentation. In fact, it's content – information you find relevant – that really sells the paper. So for last Sunday's edition, we quickly reported a story on what Northland hockey and soccer moms were thinking about Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, a self-described hockey mom.

Headlines and stories about politics always are controversial. But Jacobson thought we did the right thing by running just a photo and a headline on Page One Aug. 29 about Barack Obama's speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination. The package directed readers inside for the actual story.

If readers were interested in what Obama said, they probably watched his speech live, Jacobson reasoned.

Consultants, like Jacobson, may not always be right. Some readers – and even some of our staffers – thought we dropped the ball by not highlighting a history-making event: the first African-American to accept a major party's presidential nomination.

Still others saw conspiracy in our choice for how to use that other Page One space: for a story about John McCain inviting a Duluth man, a fellow former prisoner of war, to the Republican National Convention. On that point, I could see the argument. Though it wasn't our intent, it certainly could appear as if we were showing political bias.

If all of this seems a little uncomfortable, it is – for us, too. In trying hard not to offend anyone and to please everyone, newspapers can become out of touch and boring. Our goal is to create a News Tribune that you find alive and compelling.

We'll know we're doing that when we're selling more newspapers.



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