All week your staff works hard to create a paper for the vast campus just outside your newspaper office. You check your facts, you proofread your stories, you look for just the right photograph – and then you hope people will pick it up and read it.
But are you doing a good job? Do your stories interest your readers? Do your photographs capture their attention? Are your stories balanced and fair? Are you getting not just the facts, but the essence of your stories right?
It’s often hard to tell. Some student newspapers don’t get many letters to the editor and even when they do get a letter it can be difficult to know if the criticism is valid or just one wacky reader’s opinion. Awards from state and national organizations are a great ego boost, but they don’t tell you if you’re truly serving your campus community.
Here are some ways to assess your newspaper and to reach out to readers:
¨ Get to know your readers. Invite the campus to an open house to meet your staff and to see how the newspaper works. Sponsor a forum on a major issue in your community. Be sure to participate in school-sponsored student organization fairs. Maintain a portable information booth (a table with handouts, preferably manned by an editor and other staffers), and set it up around campus at various times.
¨ Do some research. Surveying your readership is a great way to find out how you’re doing and what your readers want more (and less) of. Telephone surveys are quick and inexpensive, but caller IDs and answering machines have taken a serious bite out of their effectiveness. Web surveys are useful for online readers. Questionnaires included in your newspaper are inexpensive and easy; keep in mind, though, that response rates are usually low. Suggestion boxes strategically placed outside your office or in the student union give readers a way to talk back to the paper.
¨ Hire an ombudsman. Have one staffer serve as a liaison between the staff and the campus – a sort of middleman. This ombudsman should spot check accuracy and reader satisfaction with the paper. After the paper is distributed, the ombudsman can call sources mentioned in the current issue to confirm the articles’ accuracy. In addition, this liaison can call students at random to determine their level of satisfaction with that issue of the newspaper. The ombudsman should report results to the editor, who can use them to plan future coverage.
¨ Advertise your newspaper. Keep telling your readers why they should read your paper. Put the ad in your school’s weekly bulletin or similar publication. Always have notices in the paper inviting readers comments and questions. The student newspaper staff at Lander University regularly posts teasers around campus – something like: “Check out who’s coming to campus next week – page three next issue.” This has proven to be an effective method to get nonreaders to check the paper out.
¨ Gorilla Warfare. Some newspaper staffs get downright inspired in their battle to overcome poster blindness — the condition many students develop to ignore the flood of flyers on campus. Some student newspaper staffs rent costumes, such as a gorilla or the school mascot, to hand deliver the paper. At least one college wrote the newspaper’s name on hundreds of ping pong balls and dropped them in strategic places, such as a busy cafeteria. Other newspapers take the town-crier approach: a student wearing a placard advertising the newspaper rings a bell, hands out the newspaper and shouts current headlines followed by, “Read All About It!”
The goals are simple: get to know your readers and find out how satisfied they are with your newspaper. The best method to realize your goals is probably as varied as student newspaper mission statements across the country. A combination of approaches like those just described is a good place to start. Be persistent and proactive. If your strategies work well, keep them up; if not, it’s probably time to stir up the mix. The results for all this hard work, simply put, will be a better newspaper for you and your campus.