Kevin Slimp column: Critiquing pages

  • Oct 08, 2015

Kevin Slimp

In October, I traveled to Albuquerque, where I gave the Saturday keynote address at the New Mexico Press Association Convention. On Sunday morning, I caught a flight to Orlando, where I spoke at an international conference made up of newspaper and magazine publishers.

My assignment in Florida was a little out of the ordinary. In addition to giving the keynote, I was asked to meet with publishers individually and look over their products, offering criticism and advice. The convention planner expected maybe a dozen publishers to take advantage of the opportunity to meet with me for 30 minutes each over two days. By the time I left Florida, I had met with more than 20 publishers, who represented scores of titles.

While I was packing my computer to head back to the airport, several of the attendees stopped me. Most of them said something like, “I can’t wait for you to see my magazine next year” or “I plan to win all the awards next year after making the changes you suggested.”

It reminded me a little of my visits to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, where I’m invited every couple of years to spend two days with the news staff there. I’m always surprised by the things we get into while I’m with the Kentucky New Era, but tend to find our page critiques the most helpful exercise. I can’t take credit for the idea. It originally came from Eli Pace, editor, and we’ve made it a regular part of my visits.

The idea works like this: The various editors meet around a conference table for a few hours, while we look over pages from the previous year. This is done by projecting the pages onto a large screen, where we can critique the pages simultaneously.

We discuss the quality of headlines, the placement of stories, the general layout of the pages and more. Once, I noted that newspaper flag on the front page looked a little dirty. Eli gave me the go-ahead to “play with the flag” that afternoon and I sent a clean copy to him before heading back to the hotel.

Not knowing he was actually going to use the cleaner design, I was surprised the next morning when he told me several readers had called in to comment on the improved front page design.

All I did was clean up the drop shadow behind the words “Kentucky New Era.” I didn’t change the shape or size of anything. I simply inserted a thin while line between the characters in the flag and the drop shadow behind them. Little things make a big difference.

While preparing for the Florida group, I gathered a group of 23 folks in my hometown of Knoxville to look over some of the various newspapers and magazines I that would be represented in Orlando. This focus group was made up of ordinary readers. None of them were professional writers, editors or designers.

I divided the focus group into smaller groups of three to four members each and asked them to critique a dozen elements of the publications. These included stories, design, readability and other elements.

Most surprising to me was the lack of concern over paper quality. Most readers didn’t seem to care whether they were reading something printed on coated stock, newsprint or something else.

What they cared about most were the stories. Were the topics of local interest? Were the writers local or did they get the material from a news service? How was the quality of the writing?

When I met individually with publishers, I shared the input of the focus groups, then went through their publications page by page, sharing my own thoughts. Afterwards, more than a few of the participants told me it was the most valuable program they’d every attended at a convention.

Why was it so valuable? Most of us, I think, get so used to seeing our newspapers that we forget how the reader sees them. By looking at their products through new eyes, I was able to share ideas that will be valuable as they continually work to improve their publications.

Here’s a thought: How about gathering a focus group to look at your newspapers every six months? By offering to pay for lunch, I had 23 willing participants, giving us enough folks to break into groups and critique two dozen titles in four hours.

In my customer service survey last month, I learned that the chief concern of subscribers is the number of local stories and the quality of writing. For nonsubscribers, quality of writing was number one and local story content was number two.

Consider creating your own focus group. I can’t wait to hear from the publishers I met in Florida to learn about the improvements to their products in the coming months.

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