Monday, April 20, 2009

Why multi-part series are even more important for newspapers today

Newspaper editors are facing tough choices about how to deploy their shrinking staffs.
But that doesn’t mean they should stop doing multi-part series that might take reporters and editors out of the daily mix for weeks or months.
To the contrary, enterprise journalism in print has even greater value in this hyper-competitive era.
It was discouraging to read the headline on Romenesko Monday about a speech by the editor of the Baltimore Sun, Monty Cook. “The days of the six-part series are gone,” he told an audience at Johns Hopkins University.
He may be right, but if he is, he's also wrong.
Here are 10 reasons why it’s even more important in these challenging times for the newspaper industry to find ways to produce multi-part enterprise stories.
• They build the brand. They help set the identity of a news organization in the minds of readers. Readers remember them; they color how readers feel about a newspaper. This helps greatly when readers are dissatisfied with other coverage. Many of these series are great examples of the watchdog role of a good newspaper and its commitment to public service.
• They’re what an editor can use to raise the standards of a newsroom. The time one takes on a series allows an editor to explore working with new story forms or approaches that can then be applied to daily reporting. They heighten the bar for daily work and the experience they provide makes it easier for the staff to top that bar.
• They give readers something to look forward to with anticipation. These are stories they can get nowhere else. If editors can hook them with a series, they strengthen the bond between reader and newspaper. One way to sell newspapers is to make sure they have something of value nobody else is offering.
• They give editors a way to explore all the different ways of telling stories in different mediums and then translate that experience into daily work. In the old days, it might have been true that if a reader missed a day of a series it was like it never existed. But with the Web, readers who miss a segment, or the entire package, can go online and find the whole thing. The online experience doesn’t have to be duplicative of the print experience. In fact, it shouldn’t be. A series online can include video, slide shows, databases, opportunities for readers to contribute or discuss the topic, etc.
• They give a newspaper a way to establish its authority on critical topics for a community. Editors must decide what stories are the most important for their communities and then establish that there is no other better source of information on those key topics. Series are one way of doing that. They help build the expertise of the staff and the understanding of the community. Newspapers should be known for topics that are critical to their area. Those are going to be different from market to market. But if a newspaper isn’t known for its authoritative coverage on a few key things, then it probably doesn’t matter enough in its community.
• They stretch the range and voice of a news organization. Newspapers must surprise their readers. On occasion, they must take them to journalistic heights that readers never expected to experience. If the drumbeat of coverage in newspapers becomes routine, they come to seem dull. And readers give up on them. Some talk about the need for journalists today to be passionate. But shouldn’t news organizations be passionate about certain stories and take them much further than their readers might have reasonably expected?
• They give the staff a way to grow. They encourage their ambition as journalists and can be a sign that editors will support them if they are willing to demand more from themselves. Multi-part series require extra effort from the journalists producing the content as well as from top editors. If editors want to develop and keep a great staff, they have to build a shared set of values and one of the best ways to do that is to build teams working on a series.
• They’re an ideal vehicle to promote the newspaper and its importance to the community. By the end of the Rocky Mountain News, we had found numerous ways to extend our reach into the community using series. We worked with our commercial TV partner to air at least one story about the series before it ran. We worked with our public broadcasting partner to air a documentary/call-in show after a series ran, using video we had produced for our Web site. We worked with talk radio shows to place our reporters and editors on the air on a daily basis to talk about the series and answer callers’ questions. We hosted a daily chat on our Web site. We built a special Web presentation that could grow over time with follow-up stories and act as a resource for the community as the topic of the series was addressed by government.
• They show the community that the paper has an insistent, caring voice and that it’s willing to go to great lengths to make sure that important issues aren’t ignored. This is part of what I mean about brand identity, but it’s more. A paper should have a personality. That can come from columnists and the way photographs are played and headlines written, among other things. But multi-part series can help establish the personality of the paper because they clearly reflect what the institution thinks is worthy of attention.
• Finally, they don’t have to be lengthy to have the impact or benefits I’ve described. At the Rocky, when it closed, we were running a 150-day countdown series to our 150th birthday. It took 36 column inches every day. Wherever I went during that time, people told me how much they enjoyed it and looked forward to it. Last summer we ran a provocative daily series that most days included a story about 15” long and a photograph. If editors need any proof of the benefits of series, they should just look at the comics. Editors know that nothing seems more important to readers, at least when you drop one they enjoy. And those are pretty darn short every day. But they keep people coming back.

Multi-part series are a way newspapers can set themselves apart. They are proof that newspapers really do offer what they promise: depth and understanding.

These are not easy times for editors. But these may be the best times ever for multi-part series because we have so many ways for readers, some who don’t even look at our print products, to access the stories. And the Web means they’re no longer confined to a local audience. If anything, perhaps editors should be looking to share more series, to give readers in their communities access to the stellar work of newspaper journalists in other communities.


  1. John,

    There's certainly a place for longer enterprise storie, but The Series™ as presented by U.S. newspapers throughout the last 15 years or so, has more often than not been a format in search of a reason to exist.

    Online, in my experience, they were almost always readership duds, with the so-so readership on Day One shrinking steadily with each passing day. If online is a fair proxy for in-paper readership of longer series (the jury's out on that, imo), then a lot of trees died in vain.

    I think Monty's right: Don't skimp on the enterprise reporting, but think about presenting it in ways that people will actually read.

  2. A wake up call.
    Good reporters and editors can shape solid content into many forms -- new ones, old ones, quick reads, slow reads.
    But a news staff needs to think ambitiously about its mission to gather that solid content.
    Licking their wounds and feeling puny won't get them there.

  3. Well said, John. It is not a time to retreat, but to forge ahead.

  4. Thanks for writing this John. I'm about to graduate with a journalism degree and refuse to believe that the storytelling I love to do is going anywhere but forward.

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