Our Lips to God's Ear

What the new 'Statesman' might do

The new owner of the Austin American-Statesman, whomever that might turn out to be, will face a daunting task trying to create an energetic, relevant newspaper for the modern age. Here are a few ideas – completely unsolicited and likely unwelcome – that they could implement on day one. Most are recommendations that are widely discussed in journalism circles, yet there is thus far little evidence the Statesman's editors are listening.

1) Be good at something, anything: Trying to be all things to all people is a loser strategy. Each section needs to pick one or two topics and dominate those beats. Let's say, for example, politics in news, tech in business, and music in the arts section. That means daily – daily – news, columns, insider reports, and reader input. Sure, other coverage will suffer, but the goal is to make the paper a must-read for at least certain segments of the community. Developing expertise would also allow for spin-off projects – competing with the type of niche newsletters and websites that continue to thrive and kick the paper's butt.

2) Analyze this: Assume many subscribers have already read the news of the day online. The paper's value should come from the insight and expertise it brings to the news. As it stands, much of the time the Statesman is essentially an analysis-free zone. No insight. No discussion. No sense that the reporters know anything about the story beyond the dry news copy. Stories need to be accompanied by columns and community perspectives; reporters should be allowed to write commentaries and use their knowledge.

3) Grow some cojones: Papers such as the Statesman believe the worst thing a paper can do is offend its readers, when, in fact, the worst thing a paper can do is bore its readers. Instead of running from controversy, embrace it. Pick stories that prod people to argue and write letters; develop columnists and topics that engage and incite readers. Face it, most readers think the paper is biased to the left or right anyway. Instead of cowering at the thought of the Rush Limbaughs of the world mocking the paper, stand tall for the free flow of ideas.

4) Go local: "Hyperlocal" is the mantra of the industry, yet there is little evidence that the Statesman gets it. Some days the business section won't have a local byline. The editorial pages are filled with out-of-town columns. Arts writers routinely spend their time writing about national events. Meanwhile, local stories go uncovered. Hyperlocal means focusing intensely on local news throughout the paper, front to back.

5) Blow up the editorial pages: Nobody cares what a bunch of blowhard editors in Austin think of the political turmoil in Sri Lanka. Get rid of the unsigned editorials. Every day should feature at least three or four local columns, exploring local issues. Instead of running only stodgy pieces the editors find "appropriate," recast the editorial pages as a free-for-all community forum. Don't eliminate controversial letters, feature them. Encourage dialogue. Strive to create a forum that people will pick up every morning just to read the latest outrageous letter. Internet sites will be jealous.

6) Compete: Every day must be approached as a test to grab readers' attention. That means controversial stories and headlines designed to attract attention. Pick one story every day, and own it. Sidebars, analysis, data – show readers why they should care. Sacrifice coverage of a few press conferences, and create watercooler conversations. And pick up the pace. It's a daily paper. There's no reason blogs and weeklies should be scooping the paper.

7) Cover UT: There are 50,000 students and a million alumni deeply interested in the daily activities of the University of Texas at Austin. Aggressive coverage of the local campus just makes sense. That means daily coverage, features, columns, and discussion forums, incorporating the voices of students and faculty. Who knows, maybe the paper could even attract a few younger readers.

8) Bulk up business: Smart people with money like to read business sections. That's a pretty good demographic to target. Instead of a few puff pieces and wire copy rewrites, the section should feature daily insider coverage, news and analysis on local companies, all geared for people who actually work in business. Every employee of Dell should pick up the paper every morning just to see that day's coverage of the company.

9) Add value: Charging for online content is not going to work. But instead of throwing everything up on the Web, delay posting the newspaper content until, say, noon – not breaking stories, only the analysis and features that make the newspaper unique. If people want to know what everybody is talking about, then they'll have to buy the paper. For an extra bonus, make some Web content available only to subscribers.

10) Lose the 'tude: As almost anyone who deals with the States­man can attest, the paper is notorious for its snobbery, often ignoring stories that the editors find unworthy of their hallowed pages. And then they toss in three-day-old wire copy and press release rewrites. Readers are tired of newspapers' arrogance. Forget the Grand Filter; try to be the Great Facilitator. Throw open the doors. Welcome different ideas and views.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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