A Good (Magazine) Project: “Alter a Front Page”

Front page of It’s a challenge and an exercise, posed by Good, a new magazine “for people who give a damn.”  You’ll find it in the March/April “Media Issue” on the back page. Couldn’t resist, of course. Since I give a damn, I gave it my best, putting together all sorts of my ideas on a single page. Especially, the one about teasing stories … Make people buy it, open it and read! (Sure it’s tacky, but so are people who’ll read that Page One story and not fork over 50 cents.) Since you probably can’t read the thumbnail image posted here, click here to see a full-blown .pdf of my “New Paper” front page.

Innovate More Immediacy: Cellphone Extras

Promo for scannerphone ideaYou’re relaxing on the couch or in your easy chair, reading a story about … a politician ranting … a great new song … the world’s worst snorer. Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to move to see or hear a clip? Just hear or see it on your cell. Maybe the story has a number to dial. For each clip. Or, better yet, to download all the clips at once. Then you pick the ones you want. Might have some sort of instant access if cellphone cameras could be used as barcode-readers. Just point at some scanner code, and, voila, you get the clip. Could make newspapers much more immediate and fun … and get people saying to friends and fellow commuters, “Hey, did you see this?”

No. 1 Newspaper Rescue Idea: Borrow a ‘You’ Turn From the Web

You”ll find many wild ideas here. Ideas to inject new life and energy into newspapers.

But here’s the most revolutionary, evolutionary idea of all.

In one swell foop, it capitalizes on many points presented here:

In a single section, it’s possible to do all of the following:

  • Create a perpetual innovation machine.
  • Reverse the life-draining outflow of content to the Web.
  • Get readers more involved than ever.
  • Add candor, creativity, humor and surprise.
  • Showcase content no other local media outlet can.

Mockup of Look at what’s been thriving lately on the Web: MySpace. YouTube. Blogs. Forums. Places where million of people fulfill their need to have their time in the sun, their 15 zillion nanoseconds of fame. Newspapers have been remote, distant from their readers, who get a spotlight only in letters, ads, announcements, or some limited poem/drawing/photo page.

Change that. Radically. The salvation of newspapers could lie not in feeding the Web but in stealing ideas from it.

Call this new section: The People PagesThe People’s Ex-PressYourSpace …  The Youse Paper, as we might say in Philly. Or ByPopular Demand. Fill it with anything and everything that lets readers shine. The list of possibilities is long … and it better be to save a medium.

The content? As marketing genius Abe Lincoln once said: This section would be “by the people, of the people, and for the people.”

It would be reader approved. Yes, polls and surveys, both in print and online would perpetually shape the content, forcing it to evolve.

There’s even a way it could be financially supported by readers. Smart business upsell their products. How about this “premium” subscription idea? For so much more a year, you get so many free announcements (anything from love notes for Valentine’s Day to birth announcements to death notices) or classified ads, or even just a box of reader shout-out space in our new YourSpace section.

Image of bulletin board of reader messages

Staff would be involved (there’s always a price), but mostly in selecting and shaping in ways that empower and gratify readers — or in creating graphics and briefs about ordinary folks.  Oh, and in making the section look good with photos and illustrations.

A sampling of the possible ideas:

  • My Room … My Fridge … My Shopping Cart … My Gift Idea … (What I Bought and Why).
  • Original reader one-liners, like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s “The Vent.”
  • Original mini comics (graphic short stories, longer than panel cartoons).
  • “Everybody’s a Critic.” A column with short opinions on anything. (See “Low-Brow Brigade” post.)
  • Best of blogs, sports forums, YouTube, MySpace and FaceBook, with emphasis on local people.
  • “Reality shows” that follow the lives of readers. (Do you own Bachelor, Biggest Loser or Apprentice.
  • Talk of the Towns: Positive newsy notes about your neighbors. Or “My Friend. My Hero. My Neighbor” Testimonials.
  • Contests / quiz shows in which readers compete.
  • Provocative comments culled from stories on the Web.
  • Results of all sorts of Internet polls.
  • A Talk About TV forum (what’s with mostly doing reviews, which talk about shows before anyone else has seen them?).
  • Poetry, fiction, plays … as long as it’s short and preferably illustrated.
  • People’s pix .. best local pictures posted online … babies, pets, gardens, friends and family.
  • Letters to the editor off the beaten social-studies track.
  • Jokes. Yes. Including visually humor PhotoShopped art.
  • Classifieds, birth/wedding/death announcements, any other ads ads from regular readers.

Teaser for

You’ll find more possibilities mentioned on other parts of this blog.

In short, craft a lot of your Website so it not only entertains people online, but generates content for this section. (Note: I have even better ideas for synergistic Web content I’m holding back to further develop.)

What’s the appeal? Online, visitors can be overwhelmed by all the choices.

This section will package it all in a handy, portable entertaining way.

It should look nothing like a newspaper. Screw the columns. Screw the rectangular pictures. No strings of paragraphs. An inviting chaos of small art, little bold headlines and easy to read text blocks. Staffers who work on this should be short-form thinkers.

Make it mostly local. But make it partly national. Humor can be universal.

And share content with other papers. Help each other out.

Create an Associated Ex-Press … sharing print-worthy content from the Web.

To give newspapers new energy, life and hope.

A (Driving) Beat Idea: Car Life Columnist

Example of Car Life newspaper column

The mission is to brainstorm ways to make papers as useful, newsy and entertaining as possible, with almost universal appeal. Impossible? Here’s an idea that for a single  feature that might manage to do all that.   

People mostly live in three worlds these days: Home. Work (or school). And car. So just think of all the high-interest subjects a dedicated Car Life Columnist might explore:

Traffic miseries and mysteries … Road conditions & construction news … Gas prices and mileage  … New gizmos and gadgets for commuters and families (from TVs for kids to navigational systems) … Car repair and maintenance … Beating traffic tickets … The confusing world of maps, directions and signs … Alternative fuels … The drive-through world (this year: The Drive-Through Nativity) … Health (stay awake!) and safety (teens, alcohol, drugs) … Regular and satellite radio  … Psychology (road rage, sexual politics of asking/giving directions, keeping kids amused) … Where to park …  the list is endless.

Who wouldn’t be interested in such a column? (OK, readers of a Mass Transit Columnist.) Car Life would lend itself to a team approach, too, switching to different writers who explore different routes, use different vehicles, drive at different times, etc.

Using cellphone-to-blog technology, such a columnist could even file live reports online. Bottom line: Readers would love us for making driving less of a pain in the ass!

Boxes & Briefs 1: Short-Form Thinkers

Many readers crave more comic relief from the onslaughter (cq) of scary news. Humor columns and comics are traditional choices. Here’s another: Have a dedicated visual and lateral thinker whose mission is to concoct all sorts of amusing or fascinating short forms. Graphics. Lists. Charts. Quizzes. Photos. Mini-essays. For anywhere and everywhere in the paper, from business to sports to the front page. Could be factual and informative (Team’s Top Felonious Draft Picks) or purely imaginative (5 ideas for sequels to Snakes on a Plane). Fun could be contagious, inspiring other staffers and readers to get in on the act. Works well online, too. The rewards are worth the risk. 

Boxes & Briefs 2: Brevity, Levity & Paydirt

If on-the-fly sidebar creativity seems too scary, consider recurring boxes and briefs. Here are some possibilities that are amusing, useful or both:

How to Save 50 Bucks (At Least). Your daily reminder that “Hey, this paper is such a bargain!” Advice could be anything from bike maintenance to anger management to websites with free stuff.
Offbeat / Oddball News. Websites like fark.com and hits on philly.com and nbc10.com prove oddball news is extremely popular. Revive to liven up the A section. Include fun art.
Highlights and Lowlifes. A daily attitude-laced gossipy column about the private lives of sports stars. Have fun sidebar boxes like “Who Am I?” or “Who Said it?” or a trivia quiz. (At least, a weekly look back.)
Quips and Rips. A daily freewheeling Internet-style message board. Shares all sorts of anonymous reader remarks. Page 2 of features. A second one in sports?
To Your Health. Daily dose of practical news and advice.
Biz Quiz. Picture or multiple-choice quiz about mind-boggling business trivia.
Everybody’s a Comedian. Funny bits from late-night monologues, local comedians, staff guest-shots and amusing readers.
My Room … My Fridge … My Shopping Cart … My Handbag. Take your pick from these ideas for informative voyeurism. Satisfy curiosity about local notables, regular people and all sorts of recommended products.
Another Side of … Local notables talk about their lesser known sides, such as hobbies, charities, families, unknown parts of their histories. Or: 3 Questions. You ask celebs 5 questions and print only the 3 best.
Parallel Universes. An offbeat chart that compares coincidentally similar people or popular things. 
What’s Up With That? Regular short reaction piece to anything dubious in the culture. By different staffers every day. 
Games, polls and tests. The more readers get up and do something because of us, the more we’re a part of their lives. Go beyond puzzles and crosswords to social activities, like board games, group quizzes and tests, like the SAT Word of the Day, which preps college-bound kid while challenging the rest of us.
Reader Challenge. Or do a TV-style in-newspaper quiz show, We pick contests, run their pics & factoids, string out eliminations day by day to build suspense.

Drama Lessons Taken From TV

Steve Lovelady, an ex-Inquirer editor, once made the memorable remark that newspaper’s biggest threat wasn’t TV news, but TV dramas like L.A. Law. The ability of TV to captivate  is a big reason Americans have less time to read. So meet the challenge by embracing dramatic storytelling. Instead of inching multiple crime stories along day by day, adding this ID and that blind investigative alley, patiently flesh out the full story until it can recreated in full, suspenseful narrative fashion. Make it a must-read, like must-see TV. And schedule such stories regularly. Perhaps even do reruns. (Book collections of such cases?) Document the day-to-day details online, to stay competitive with radio and TV, but reserve the dramatic epic exclusively for print.

Reality Shows in Type

Reality Shows in Type for newspapers

The needed newspaper revolution could learn from one on TV: Faltering ratings were boosted, temporarily at least, with the surge in reality TV. Basically, such shows were (a) cheap to produce, and (b) based on providing contrived vicarious thrills. How do real people behave? In a way, isn’t that one reason we read newspapers? To find out about ourselves? So why not (remember we’re talking the life or death of a business, a medium here) brainstorm ways to find out some of those answers using real people? Create a serial that runs every day, hooking readers to find out what comes next …

Help for the Helpless. Go to a halfway house or hospital and find people in need of a little support, a hand up. Tell their stories. Arrange sessions with experts. Chart progress. Appeal for help finding the people a job.

The Biggest Loser. There’s no reason a weight-loss group / contest can’t be a continuing saga.

Read Dating. Why not chronicle attempts by singles to meet a mate? Follow the tales of a small group as they try this service, these ads, this author’s advice, that online service.

The Apprentice. Again, why not a print version? A local business personality gets publicity in exchange for conducting an in-print talent search. With A-to-Z tips on finding jobs. Maybe run this in your Help Wanted section, to attract more attention to those ads.

Columnist for President. Sure, put your most lovable grassroots-stained wretch on the ballot. Then let him conduct the campaign in print. Offer equal time, of course, to the real candidates. Stupid? Subversive of the election process? Hey, maybe it would actually get people to pay attention to politics and even vote.

This is just a sample of the possibilities. In small towns where the local news is yawn-inducing and the national news has already been coopted by TV and CNN.com, sure could bring a little fun and life back to pulp.

Maybe coordinate this with a local TV news or radio talk show, boosting both parties on the Buzz Meter.

See what happens when you suspend focus on “news” and instead just think about what else can go on “paper”?

Lessons From Talk Radio

Not saying Rush Limbaugh should hold court on your editorial pages. (Not knocking that, either.) Asking how the energy and give-and-take of the best radio talk could swiped and put in print. 
Best bits of the Morning Zoos. High jinks hghlights.
Host online chats, and slap some of the lively dialogue in print. 
Do team writing, or team talking, with transcripts of the forum-like topic-hopping conversations. 
Have contests. Throw out a question. Best answer / 50th caller (to newspaper number) wins a prize. 
Do stunts. Dress up in the most creative costume, and email us your picture. We’ll print the wildest ones.
How can we put music in print? Either put the newspaper on CD, or have some kind of barcode you scan. Perhaps using your cell phone. It recognizes the code, or hooks into a Web link, and presto, you listen to a song or speaker without putting down your paper. (Have seen and heard ideas similar to this.)
Ramblings, a column that skips around between all sorts of newsy bits and smart remarks. One columnist or contributions from assorted staffers. 

A Gossip Column About Our Fictional Celebrities

Gossip columns are popular, and so are TV series. Doesn’t it seem sometimes that people are almost as interested in TV characters as they are in real people? Aha! Do a newspaper column called “Character References” that’s “gossip” about what happened last night on TV. Write it up in chatty mock-shock-schlocky style. Boldface the unreal names. Only the wildest, wickedest, newsiest fictional events make the cut. Could broaden it to include famous characters from books and movies, too.