Speed Read: Heard about the editor who makes journalists rewrite every page lead in two short sentences to give readers at-a-glance digests? His paper – the independently-owned Maidenhead Advertiser – has just posted a 9.4pc circulation rise.
One of the biggest challenges for newspapers is how to grab and keep readers’ attentions in a mass media world of brief news items.
TV, radio, websites and social media like Facebook and Twitter are steadily creating fickle, scanning audiences who want everything in a paragraph – or they’ll go elsewhere.
And so I was both fascinated and pleased to see the discipline that Maidenhead Advertiser editor Martin Trepte has instilled in his journalists.
‘SINK ESTATE’, the main heading on the front of the Advertiser on 29 August, was quickly explained by the sub-heading ‘Housing association reassures residents after sixth huge hole appears near homes’.
This focus on the main story with a crisp picture gave readers clear direction, with no interference from other images, silly word-plays or ugly boosts.
For anyone wanting to know about inside content, the information was all there in neat snippets of no more than five words: ‘Timbertown in pictures P18-19’; ‘Littlewick Show 4-page special P24-27’; ‘Your no.1 property pull-out’; ‘Guide to what’s on starts P37’; ‘All the sporting action see P72’.
But it was the clever summaries of all inside page leads that really impressed me – each one explained in two-sentence ‘Speed Read’ boxes (which I’ve tried to emulate at the top of this blog).
Importantly, these write-offs were not just the first two paragraphs repeated, but were fresh takes on stories that then began in different ways.
Take the example from page 35, with the lead headline ‘Piles of paper in death fire home’ and the sub-heading ‘Datchet: Accidental death verdict on 81-year-old artist victim’.
Then the ‘Speed Read’: ‘An artist who studied with Picasso died in a fire which was probably caused by a heater being close to something flammable, an inquest heard. A coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death.’
This was followed by the first two pars of the main story: ‘A brilliant potter and artist who died in a house blaze in Datchet was living surrounded by piles of paper and clothes, an inquest heard. Brian Starkey, 81, died in the early hours of Wednesday, March 6, in his detached home in Linchfield Road.’
Other papers have offered similar story digests, although these are often poured into a single summary page – if I remember correctly The Journal in Newcastle used to do this on page two (and perhaps still does).
What’s eye-catching about the Maidenhead approach is that it’s become house style for every news page – headline, underline and ‘Speed Read’ to help the flicking reader take everything in before tackling the full 12 par lead.
It works particularly well for spreads pulling together major events; on pages 18 and 19, for example, there are 21 community pictures in a package headlined ‘Turning 30 with a gem of an idea’.
Now that’s quite a lot to take in for a scanning reader, and although the sub-heading ‘North Town: Pearly anniversary inspires Timbertown theme’ helped, I wanted more, quickly, rather than having to plough through a lead and captions.
The ‘Speed Read’ delivered: ‘Timbertown celebrated its pearl anniversary at Town Moor with a four-day festival of building, painting and burning. Imaginative oyster-themed huts were constructed and finally demolished on a celebratory bonfire.’
This briefly told me what was happening but offered enough of a cliff-hanger to make me read the main story to satiate what was now an appetite for fuller facts.
I won’t repeat the lead, but it detailed an annual event involving hundreds of local children building, decorating and demolishing structures before enjoying a giant bonfire – which sounds like a take on certain parts of the regional newspaper industry to me!
But I digress; the point I’m making is that the Advertiser offered ‘Speed Reads’ of all main stories on the pages they appeared, a facility that created a website feel to an ink-on-paper product.
This could be one of the reasons why the paper has just posted its third consecutive circulation rise, the latest showing a 9.4pc rise to 19,515.
It should be noted that around a quarter of this figure includes an increasing number of free copies with a diverging sales trend, as is the case if you analyse various other papers’ ABC circulations.
Nevertheless, I reckon the Advertiser’s detailed news service has helped to keep three quarters of its readers happy shelling out 70p every week.
‘Speed Reads’ aside, there were more than 200 stories on 38 news and features pages, and another 70-plus reports on nine sports pages in a 72-page main book, plus a 24-page Property pull-out.
A special mention for the page three lead ‘Loyal dog wakes chef as fire wages in historic pub’, as it captured the spirit found throughout the title – drama, love and community.
There were courts, crimes, fires, fatalities, charities, school reports, politics and wedding anniversaries, and all read like someone had enjoyed writing them, such as the page eight second lead headlined: ‘Never separating without a kiss’.
Reporting the 60th wedding anniversary of octogenarians George and Muriel Lawrence, the story ends: ‘Although the pair are in different wards of the home, staff bring them together for lunch every day and 82-year-old George refuses to let them return to their respective buildings without a goodbye kiss.’
Perhaps this caring touch comes from independent owners Bayliss Media staffing its weekly newspaper properly: the page two index proudly displays a staff list of editor, deputy editor, web editor, sports editor and ten named reporters.