Tuesday, December 13, 2011

My spring letter to DM unpublished, my advice unheeded

    I wrote the following letter to the editor to the Daily Mississippian back in the spring. It never ran. In their defense, I thought I was running it near the beginning of a new editor's term, which used to begin April 1. Apparently it arrived near the outgoing editor's end of term and was thrown in the wastebasket. I accompanied this letter with a cover asking that it be published so the staff could get student feedback, so there was no misunderstanding as to it being a private letter. The editor just didn't want the criticism.
    I am constantly disappointed in the Mississippian, in that I think quality should have gone up in tandem with technology over the past 25 years; it seems to have gone down. I exchanged a couple of messages with a staff member earlier this year, I was told that journalism faculty teaching reporting classes are not requiring their students to turn in two stories each week which can then be picked up by the student paper. If that's true, I think we need new faculty.
    As I point out in my unpublished letter, putting out a quality newspaper is easier today. Twenty-five years ago, publishing a "mug" shot might take two hours. The photo would have to be taken, the film developed and dried, the photo enlarged and dried, type modified to leave a hole in exactly the right space, a red-out put down, the photo sized, and so forth. Today a "mug" can be taken with most cell phones, emailed in, edited and on the page in five minutes. It's all done on the computer.
    But enough. Here's my letter, which was never published. I hope some newspaper staff members might make their way to this blog and heed some of the advice.

Dear Editor:
    The staff of The Daily Mississippian works hard. I know, I've been there. You are to be commended for your hard work and your desire to produce a product that serves everyone in the community. With that said, I would like to make some suggestions that in my opinion would improve the newspaper.
    Twenty-five years ago we were still laying out stories with photographic type set in strips. Photos had to be "shot" and pasted in. Including small "head" shots was actually quite difficult. Today, having a great paper design is easy. The Mississippian ought to be head-and-shoulders better in appearance and content than it was years ago, and quite honestly it's not.
    Here are my suggestions on how you can improve the paper:
    • Your coverage of campus events is very weak. Major events come and go and frequently aren't even mentioned in the paper. You need a Campus Calendar that runs every day. It should feature the Brown Bag lunches, the upcoming plays and musical performances, and any other not-for-profit event that is happening on campus or in Oxford. If it's happening it ought to be there. It may take up space, but it will be one of the most read parts of the paper.
    • Your paper needs shorter stories and more of them! Most people are not reading these giant blobs of gray that you are plopping down on the front page, and the ability to write really long stories does not make one a good journalist. You need lots of 6- to 8-inch stories and should limit most stories to 12 column inches. Perhaps one story a day can run longer – up to 24 inches – put please go ahead and jump the thing. The people who are interested will follow the jump, those who aren't will get enough info before the jump.
    Just to give you an example, right now there are ads in the paper for Barksdale Honors College students presenting their honors theses. Perhaps with the assistance of a journalism professor you could have had someone assigned to write a six-inch story with a mug-shot on each of these presentations. No need for an epistle, just a quick story. I assure you that more people would read 10 of these six-inch stores then would read one of the overwritten 60-inch masterpieces that you frequently have.
    • Your front page needs at least four stories every day. If there is a big Mississippi story, you should include it. You should devote a small amount of space inside to state and national news briefs. No need to run long stories – just give your readers the headlines and they can go to the Internet to get more if they want.
    • You need to use photographs more wisely. Put a frame around your photos. Run people small and things big. Lighten them up; they're over-inked. If you quote someone, run a tiny "mug" shot in the story whenever possible (eventually you should have a library of hundreds of "mugs."). Never run a photo without a cutline. Identify people in photos. If you have two photos on a page, make sure one is the dominant photo and is at least twice the size of any other photo.
    • Create multiple points of entry to your stories. That means that in addition to the headline virtually every story should have a roughly 14-point subhead over one column. Use mug shots. Use fact boxes. Use quote-outs. If you can put a dollar bill on the page and it only covers body type, you're doing something wrong.
    • Read and steal ideas from great newspapers. I may hate the politics of the Clarion-Ledger, but it, like almost all Gannett papers, is well designed. Learn from it. Join the Society for News Design and attend some workshops and the annual convention. The next one is in St. Louis this fall. Join and go! The last one I attended was almost 15 years ago, but I was sharing a drink with a fellow named Daryl, and after a while I couldn't stop myself. "Mr. Moen," I told him, "I enjoyed your text book." He thanked me for buying it. We all had a great time. Join this group and you will have the chance to learn from and with the best. Student memberships are only $60.
    • So have a good time. It doesn't always take more work to put out a better product. It just takes better choices. I hope you will consider some of the suggestions I've presented to you; and if not, you still have my best wishes for a great year.
Frank Hurdle
DM Editor, 1987-88


Ignatius said...

I couldn't agree more, Colonel. I am afraid that they are trying too hard to be different in their design instead of using tried and true elements that we know are pleasing to the eye. I am agree that the substance of their work has grown shoddy, as well. I was quoted in the Eagle in a story; about a week later, a DM writer wrote on the same subject and lifted my quotes directly from the Eagle story. I had my hand on the office phone to call and set someone straight, but then thought better. I hoped the Eagle reporter would call it to their attention and give them a good lashing. It's a shame, really. Behind Missou, Ole Miss's journalism department was top in the South. No more.

Ignatius said...

Oops. A typo in a comment in which I am being critical of editors. Ironic? Substitute: "I agree that the substance ...."

Col. Reb Sez said...

Ignatius, the design is just awful, and there is no concept of how to use photos. They frequently run a story across five columns and then run a two- or three-column photo on the LEFT side, so that the story starts down underneath the photo. No newspaper anywhere in the entire world does that, and the reason they don't is because it's not unique, it's wrong.