Not long ago the North County Times devised a brilliant strategy to woo new readers. The paper's perky subscription sales geeks went door to door and offered a free house plant to anyone who didn't slam the door in their face.
The lure of a free plant improved the "door open rate" by 47 percent, a Times executive told an industry magazine. In the newspaper game, this passes for a whopping success, a chance to let out a "Yippie!' considering the public's growing disdain for newspapers.
A huge wave of free-spending suburb dwellers have flooded into San Diego County in the last 20 years, yet the circulation numbers of the San Diego Union-Tribune and North County Times, the county's two largest papers, continue to limp along like brain-dead snails following a trail of stale urine. A recent survey found that only about 40 percent of Americans even bother to read a daily newspaper these days, and that doesn't take into account the vast populace that picks up the paper only for the comics.
The big honchos of local publishing appear to recognize this disturbing lack of "growth" in their core business. They've sat on serious industry panels and convened focus groups and created committees to study the situation, before heading off to La Costa for seaweed spa treatments. The result has been a blizzard of new editions, snappy "week in review" sections, big pictures, new typefaces and endless attempts to do more "positive" news.
The impact of the moves has been remarkably consistent-none of it has worked. Newspaper executives have failed miserably in their attempts to liven up the papers and attract new readers.
Even the most amateur of readers can tell it's time for a change. And while sitting on the sidelines and mocking their efforts is easy-very, very easy-in the spirit of goodwill, it might be more productive, at least this once, to offer a few helpful suggestions. Most may fall into the "well, duh" category, but, hey, this isn't brain surgery. Newspaper executives say they're already doing many of these things. That's the problem.
* Be local. Why should Union-Tribune readers care about Robert "Bob" Laurence's view of the latest TV sitcom? Instead, the paper could easily run a syndicated column from a top national writer like Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales. A thousand local TV and radio stories go uncovered because Laurence is too busy mulling over Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Local writers should be forced to write about local topics.
* Don't duck controversy. Newspapers are wimps. They puff out their chests and act all tough, but they are really cowering mounds of Jell-o. Chargers and Padres beat reporters almost never tell you what's really going on in the locker rooms, out of fear the assistant PR guy might get angry. You have to be willing to piss people off on a daily basis if you expect readers to show you any respect.
* Be experts. Business writers spend their days writing stories for people who don't know anything about business. That's why people in the business community think newspaper business sections are crap. If the papers want smart people to read, they need to tell smart people something they may not already know.
* Lose the 'tude. The daily newspapers constantly choose not to cover stories they deem unworthy of their pages. And then they run reports on dolphins that talk like humans and wire-copy features on farming innovations in Iowa. Cover the stories and let others decide if they are worthy.
* Do one thing well. Instead of trying to cover everything and sucking at all of it, each section should pick one or two areas of expertise and really try to kick ass. That means daily coverage, not an executive profile once every three months.
* Cut dead wood. Newspapers are notorious havens for lazy whiners. Get rid of them. Reward the hustlers. Fire all the assistant chief deputy regional editors. Keep people who can write and come up with scoops. Daily newspapers are supposed to be the big leagues. If they can't cut it, tell them to get jobs in PR.
* Get rid of editorials. The idea that editorials shape public opinion is a myth spread by editorial writers, a notoriously lazy and arrogant bunch. No one cares what a bunch of boring white guys in Mission Valley think about Indonesian monetary policy. Fire the self-absorbed editors and recreate the editorial pages as a true public forum, a space for any wacko to spout off.
* Go after the kids. That doesn't mean assigning a 45-year-old hack in the news department to write a feature about rap. It means hiring young writers and letting them write in their language and giving them daily space to cover local bands and sports. The token, once-a-week, two-paragraph mention of blink-182 is not pulling the kiddies away from "Grand Theft Auto."
* Pick up the pace. Guys, people can tell what's going on. The Saturday paper always sucks. The Sunday paper is full of wire copy. The front page may have only one local story. News sections are fluffed out with daily crime and court reports and press-conference coverage. Doing a "daily" newspaper means coming up with something cool "daily." We all know it's tough. Maybe set the alarm an hour earlier in the morning. Baby steps. BWrite to MsBeak1@aol.com and editor@SD citybeat.com.