In my increasingly ambitious series of blog posts in which I’ve been telling everyone else in the newspaper industry how to do their job, I think I’m aiming highest with this one.
These are, in my opinion, the seven vital signs of a great newspaper.
1. Know what you are.
This sounds glaringly obvious, but a newspaper has to decide what it is and who it is aiming at. Every paper has a slightly different target audience.
The make-up of that audience might be defined by the geographical limits of its circulation (if a regional) or a slightly more ephemeral distinction between the “types” of people a national tries to attract.
All newspapers would like to be all things to all men. But, unfortunately, that isn’t possible because all men (and their wives, mothers and sisters) don’t want to read the same sort of newspaper.
There’s quite a difference between a red-top tabloid that carries pictures of scantily-clad women on its news pages and a sober, sombre broadsheet that carries pictures of scantily-clad women in its arts section.
Red-tops have readers who would be bored by stolid broadsheets, which in turn have readers who would be appalled by salacious red-tops.
And that’s a good thing. Which section of society you aim at doesn’t matter. What matters is that you make your paper a must-buy part of those peoples’ lives. That is what decides whether or not you are a good newspaper.
These days, news organisations have whole departments who study readers. They regularly provide updates on who these readers are, how they live, what they think about everything from their favourite ancient Greek philosophers to their favourite modern Greek kebab shops.
So with all this information, it should be easy to define yourself. It isn’t, because if it was, then every newspaper would be brilliant at Vital Sign No. 2.
2. Set your own agenda.
Possibly the biggest compliment you could pay a newspaper is to say it has “a sure touch”. In other words, it knows what it wants to say, knows how it will write and present stories and knows what it is.
Because presenting news, or features, or sport has to be consistent. You can’t flip-flop between trying to be a heavy “paper of record” one week and the next attempt to be a celebrity-obsessed gossip rag.
And when topics come up, your stance is “sure”. You are confident enough to say what you think, and mean it, on contentious topics such as immigration, fracking or whether the nation should send its young men and women to war.
Those with a true sure touch don’t even need to wait around for a big story to spark a brilliant headline. A great newspaper can look within itself and actually make news.
It can decide that it doesn’t like the way a certain section of society is being treated — those being mistreated or neglected in care homes; those who have had their cancer misdiagnosed; those who are bothered by incessant sales phone calls – and create not just a story but a campaign.
It’s all about being readable, really. Which brings me on nicely to Vital Sign No. 3.
3. Don’t miss the don’t misses.
The best newspapers and magazines have those little items tucked away at the bottom or side of pages that are a joy to read.
For me, it would be brilliantly-written etymological facts about delicious words that make you want to find a reason to add them to your vocabulary.
Or they could be a cartoon, or an advice column, or a clever quiz. Or how to grow better onions, a list of the best bargains in the shops…anything. So long as they are pithy, true, intelligent and cannot be found anywhere else.
The rule holds true for your named columnists, and also the crossword and puzzles, the weather, competitions, giveaways, advice, nostalgia, letters…in fact every nook and cranny of your pages, from front to back and weaved into all and any supplements.
Even your adverts should be worth buying the paper for. It sounds easy, doesn’t it? Well it isn’t easy, partly because of Vital Sign no. 4.
4. Everything changes.
If you ever get the chance, take a look through archive copies of any newspaper. It is a fascinating experience.
The first thing that will strike you (and which should probably be a salutary lesson to us all) is how unimportant the world-shattering events of a few years or decades ago seem now.
It isn’t so long since news pages were stuffed with the doings of Ian Smith, prime minister of Rhodesia, and Archbishop Makarios’s adventures in Cyprus. But now?
The second thing you will notice, is how different the pages looked just a few years ago. Go back a decade or more and it is as if you are looking through an entirely different newspaper.
A well-established paper will, of course, have retained its core values and outlook. But change is vital. Design, use of pictures, fonts and colours will all be different.
Newspapers exist to reflect society as much as to report upon what a society is doing. So they have to move with the times, because people change. What they are interested in changes.
Quite apart from that, they have to be prepared to make the very best use of technology and must embrace each innovation that comes along. And something new always does come along.
Stand still and you die. But don’t be afraid to stand firm – which might seem contradictory but is explained in Vital Sign No. 5.
5. Have an opinion.
If something is wrong in the world, say so. If you believe in a cause, then sing out. If you hate, then fire your venom.
The great newspapers tell people what’s what. They say what they think and back up their opinion with facts, endorsements from the nation’s leading figures and print their own tub-thumping editorial opinions.
This approach applies to what might appear the smallest of stories. If Mrs Miggins (76) from Little Street, Ruraltown, has been cheated out of 23p by some big, bad, multi-national company then a good paper stands up for her.
Because that is wrong and a free press is at liberty, indeed has a responsibility, to shout about that sort of thing.
But it must also be true of the biggest stories – the wars, the terror attacks and the natural disasters. A newspaper is the voice of the people and it has to make itself heard. If a newspaper is not heard, then who is?
Would you rather leave the country to be run by politicians? No you wouldn’t. To temper the excesses of government you need Vital Sign No. 6.
6. Have great staff.
It isn’t just newspapers that this applies to, it is a mark of all successful businesses. A great newspaper is produced by a great team, who all have printers’ ink flowing in their veins.
The best newspapers are produced by teams performing at the top of their collective game – all motivated, with ideas crackling around their heads and each one confident enough to carry them out.
This has to be true of every single part of a paper – the news pages, the features, the sport and the website.
And also the photographers, the page artists and the cartoonists, the ads sales reps, the admin staff, the press hall engineers and the drivers of the distribution trucks. Everyone who makes their living in the newspaper world.
Each and every one should be bursting with energy and eager to make their mark.
Working for a newspaper can provide a tremendous sense of achievement. It might take years to construct a ship or building, or for industries and businesses to see the fruits of their labours.
But just a few minutes on from every newspaper’s off-stone deadline there is the instant hit of an inky, fully-formed newspaper being thrust into each journalist’s hand as a reward, a trophy to show for their day’s work.
And that trophy rolls off the presses and out into the streets to amuse, bemuse, anger, inform and illuminate members of the public, the government and the glitterati.
It is the greatest job on earth. And the best bit of it comes when your thoughts, your experiences and your hard work is read, talked about and enjoyed by the readers.
And how will you be sure that the readers will enjoy your paper? That is the territory of Vital Sign No. 7.
7. The secret that isn’t a secret.
Last, but by no means least, there is one indispensable ingredient that all brilliant newspapers have.
No matter if they are the weightiest of organs, groaning under the pressure of carrying the hard news that nations are founded upon; or the most frivolous of showbiz rags…they ALL share this trait.
It is, of course, to have great stories.
Stories that make you laugh or cry, stories that set armies marching or audiences flocking to the theatre. Stories that amaze you, that fire your enthusiasm or stop you dead in your tracks.
Stories that raise up heroes or bring down governments. Stories about the brightest stars and the darkest deeds. Stories of triumph and disaster, victory and pitiful defeat. Stories you want to read.
The pen, as the old idiom has it, is mightier than the sword.
What that saying doesn’t tell you is what happened to the story after the pen was finished writing it. I’ll tell you what happened…it was published in a newspaper.