This past weekend I got away from Princeton for a few days, heading north on the Garden State Parkway en route to New England and a college reunion. With Princeton out of sight and out of mind, I pulled over at the Montvale rest stop on the Garden State, took my place in line at the Dunkin Donuts for the obligatory cup of coffee (black), and suddenly heard my name called.
It was Amy and Drew Trachtenberg of Plainsboro, faithful readers of U.S. 1 who somehow had recognized me in this totally out-of-context setting. After the usual pleasantries I discovered they are friends of U.S. 1 writer Michele Alperin. And whose article was I in the process of editing at that very moment? Michele Alperin’s cover story in this week’s issue. Small world, yes, but also a tight-knit community served by this print publication.
In the past two columns in this space, I have been pondering the future of print journalism, and the distinct possibility that print may not be dying as fast as some have predicted. In that vein I have suggested some low-cost ways for print to take better care of itself so that it at least slows down its decline and possibly even reverses it.
After writing first about how print can strengthen its content and then about how to enhance its presentation in ways that distinguish it from the quicksand of the online media, I would like to add a few thoughts about engaging the communities that print publications must serve in order to survive.
The community is the foundation of any successful publication, whether it is online or in print. The online people have had their challenges establishing and maintaining a sense of community. Because the online publications have unlimited space, and the ability to add or delete a story at any time of day, the site may be constantly in flux. In the online world publication is an ongoing process. In the print world, it is an anticipated event.
Consider West Windsor and Plainsboro, both covered by our bi-weekly WW-P News. When I started the paper back in the year 2000 I was told it was a highly “wired” community. The residents wouldn’t rely on print media for long. More than a decade later, and despite the high penetration of Internet, smart phones, and the like (next year all sixth graders will get Chromebooks, for example), the WW-P community continues to support its print newspaper and is eager to see the residents’ accomplishments documented every other Friday.
Why aren’t they satisfied with a posting on a website or social media? My theory: They can put their own pictures online anytime they want. Getting the recognition in the print publication is a one-of-a-kind event.
As the providers of an important, ongoing, regularly scheduled community event, publications are important figures in their community (distinctly defined by the limits of their news coverage and circulation efforts).
Print publications need to define their communities, serve them well, and resist the temptation to chase lucrative readers who have moved out of their communities. A lot of big city dailies tried to appeal to suburbanites at the expense of their urban readers and ended up getting clobbered in the suburbs by weekly papers that covered the community better.
In the early days of U.S. 1 I was under pressure to extend its reach up and down Route 1, the highway. I finally established a formula. We would limit our coverage area so that someone on one side of our community could meet someone from the other side for lunch with each of them driving no more than a half hour to reach a common destination. Everyone could enjoy a one-hour business lunch without being out of the office more than two hours.
Once defined the community needs to be engaged. We need to make our readers the celebrities of our publications, not just the readers. At U.S. 1 we are devoting less space than we did just a few years ago to national and international newsmakers who come to town for a single public appearance or performance. We are turning more space over to performers and presenters who live in our community. These are people who you might see at an art opening at night and in line at the Dunkin Donuts (not in Montvale) the next morning.
With tools such as E-mail and Skype, editors of any online or print publication can draw on writers from anywhere in the world. Print media need to do more to develop writers in their own backyard. Help those writers develop a distinct personality. Every community has its share of characters. Its writers can be a little flamboyant, as well.
Community engagement is never stronger than when readers become writers, as well. It’s tough for some print journalists to accept, but a community will often trust the word of a letter writer before they trust a reporter (especially when the reporter is fresh out of college or an unpaid intern still in college — as they often are in these budget-conscious days).
At U.S. 1 the height of our community engagement may be the U.S. 1 Summer Fiction issue and the reception following. Even in this glorious electronic age, matching names and faces is still an important part of the communication process.
A graphic arts consultant recently made some suggestions for burnishing the images of U.S. 1, the WW-P News, and the other eight papers in the Community News Service family. The consultant, based somewhere in the Midwest, offered some suggestions that made sense, and others that failed to consider the communities in which our publications are engaged.
One example: The colors of the West Windsor-Plainsboro page one masthead, or nameplate, as it was called, were “garish.” Green and blue — garish? Of course they are. But they are also the colors of the community’s two highly rated and pride-and-joy high schools. If you live in West Windsor or Plainsboro and are involved with the schools, you see a lot of blue and green.
But I was not so quick to dismiss another one of the consultant’s suggestions — that we redesign the logos identifying our regular columnists and include the writer’s photograph with the column. Not a bad idea, given all that I have said above about reaching out to the community. So would that mean that my mug shot gets stuck in the banner above this space? Could be. And if you recognize me in line at the Dunkin Donuts, don’t hesitate to say hello. It is part of the job (and one that’s more fun than most).