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With Newspapers Continually Turning Tabloid, National News Agencies Must Re-Think Their Text Products

By Philip M. Stone

The Times has followed the Independent in the UK and gone tabloid. In Sweden, many broadsheets have either already moved to tabloid or have announced they will switch. Free tabloids given to commuters in many EU countries have garnered very large circulations.  In Germany new tabloids are being produced aimed at the young reader.  And similar swings are prevalent across the EU. All of this has a profound effect and requires change by national news agencies on the text products they provide to their main customers.

There are several aspects of their news production national news agencies must re-examine, but the top five are:

      q       Style of writing

q       Length of story

q       Information Aimed at the Young

q       International news sources

q       New revenue streams

STYLE: With newspapers going tabloid one main result will be that the stories they run will be much shorter than they were in the their broadsheets. How to produce for the broadsheet and tabloid market with the same story? Adhere strictly to the “inverted pyramid” principle of news writing.

With inverted pyramid, a story is written with the most important information at the top of the story and as the story progresses the information becomes less important. So when an editor decides the needed length it’s an easy matter to count the lines/words from the top and know that wherever the story is cut the most important information has been retained.

One of the best examples I ever saw to prove this point was a European news agency’s story out of Moscow that for the first few paragraphs extolled the virtues of  Josef Stalin. Finally, in the sixth or seventh paragraph, the story then gave a source, saying basically, “all of this according to a new book published in Moscow today”.

 That type of writing by a newspaper’s own foreign correspondent may be fine when he knows the paper will run your entire story, (although one was always taught to source the first paragraph of any story within that paragraph) but with a news agency delivering that story to a tabloid what good is that type of writing?

 Inverted pyramid may be a bit boring, but it gets the job done. “MOSCOW – A book published today extolled the virtues of Josef Stalin …”

LENGTH: Then there is the matter of story length. News agency editors have forever lost a battle with their journalists about excess verbiage. An ideal news agency story is 250 words. If it’s a very special story then perhaps 350 words. Just try to get a news agency journalist who has been covering a story all day and has so much information to write it in under 750 words!

Thus a diarrhea of words pours into the news agency newsroom where editors if they have time will trim the stories or just let them go and let the receiving client do the job. In the tabloid world that excess verbiage just doesn’t work. Tabloids want tightly written stories. As Sgt. Joe Friday used to say to a witness on the original Dragnet TV show, “Just the facts, Madam, just the facts.”  Length of product now becomes even more important in the tabloid environment.

SUBJECT MATTER: Newspapers have known for many years they are losing young readers. They do not identify with the existing product and thus look elsewhere for their information. Free tabloids like Metro and 20 minutes have seized upon this. Their success is not due just to the fact they are free (which the young like) but because the young can identify with the news content,

 Newspapers desperately want to be able to keep their young readers, and increase that reader base. Some have decided they cannot do it with their existing product and are launching new tabloids, at a low newsstand cost, to penetrate the market.

 This all requires a rethink in the news agency newsroom. If their customers are after the young reader, then what product is the news agency producing to help the customer get/keep that reader?

INTERNATIONAL NEWS SOURCES: News agencies are under severe pressure to increase revenues and decrease costs. One possible way is to examine their costs for international news, whether from international news agencies and also from their own correspondents. Most national news agencies now subscribe to two international news agencies for their foreign news. Is that necessary today or are their better, less expensive ways of meeting the foreign news demand?  Are foreign correspondents sending in stories the international agencies have already covered, or are they filing stories of particular interest to the country that the international agency hasn’t covered?

NEW REVENUE STREAMS: The national agencies should also closely examine what the international news agencies are up to. Reuters has announced it is going heavily into the direct consumer market, and it is building its Reuters.com site to be a major profit maker. It has dropped some of its wholesale web business to keep its news more exclusive for its own site.

 For European national agencies this is not so easy, depending on their ownership, that usually is their country’s newspapers. Anything that the news agency wants to do that competes with what the newspaper owner is doing on the newspaper’s own site creates great friction.  But these issues need to be resolved. News agencies need to create higher revenues, and since their owners don’t really want to pay more for their services, then the income must come from elsewhere.

One European national news agency which has moved in this direction very successfully is Italy’s ANSA.  So prevalent is the ANSA name in Italy that a leading dictionary a couple of years ago included the word ANSA defining it as “breaking news”.  Their web site http://www.ansa.it  is the defacto web news source in Italy, it has banner advertising, audio and video,  and its only problem is that when a major event occurs the site sometimes crashes because the normal page view increases six-fold from  normal  use.

Italians love to use their mobile phones for sms messaging and for receiving information, and ANSA is therefore very active in the mobile phone information business. ANSA’s ownership is made up of the country’s newspapers, but management has been blessed by an enlightened board of directors that has allowed such projects to bloom. 

National news agencies need urgently to take a new look at what they do, how they do it, and study whether their end product is really the product their market needs.   

© Philip M. Stone of  Stone & Associates, a partner in followthemedia.com


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