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Teaching Tips

We are collecting tips from high school newspaper advisers nationwide on how to run student publications and deal with the issues from administrators, students and parents.

Changing to meet the challenge

Changing to meet the challenge

It’s time all of us in the newsroom recognize the need to change.
The need, on a very simplistic level, is survival.
Each year, more newspapers close their doors.

The need is to survive as an industry and as a newspaper.
The goal is to prosper.
You must make your newspaper indispensable to its readers.
You must make your newspaper useful to its readers.

The most important competition for a newspaper’s readers is not cable television, magazines, or personal computers and the ominous informational highway.

The most important factor newspapers must overcome is the time famine.
The competition for a reader’s time has never been more intense.
Successful people — productive people, are busy people.

You must make our newspaper so compelling, so useful, that readers feel that their day isn’t complete unless they’ve read your newspaper.
Ask yourself the following questions about your newspaper.

Are you excited to pick up the newspaper as soon as it arrives to your desk or at home?

Would you be as excited if you didn’t work at the newspaper?

Do you read the stories you didn’t write or edit?

Are these stories genuinely interesting to you?

The indispensable newspaper test

Ask yourself these questions each time you produce a newspaper.

  • Is this edition of the newspaper so compelling, so interesting, that a reader will really enjoy sitting down and reading it.
  • Will a reader learn something from this newspaper that will help that person live a better life?
  • When a reader finishes with the newspaper, will he or she likely discuss what they read with someone else?
  • Will a reader find information that will make that person a better neighbor, parent or citizen?
  • Will a reader receive information that will provide that person with a better understanding of the people, community, government, services and opportunities that exist in their community or region?
  • Will a reader find something to laugh or chuckle about?
  • Will a reader find something to be excited about?
  • Will a reader be able to find what they are looking for in their newspaper?
  • Will the readers, once finished with the newspaper, be confident that their newspaper met its obligation to look out for their best interests while they were busy working or raising their families?
  • Did the newspaper provide information or ideas that would save its readers time or money?

The goal, each issue, is to say yes to all of the above.

Changes in attitudes

Take a different approach to the 5 Ws and H.
It was Journalism 101. Who, what, when, where, why and how.
We were taught:

  • Who – subject of story
  • What – what happened
  • When – when did it happen
  • Where – where did it happen
  • Why – why did it happen
  • How – how did it happen

This simplistic formula is a great place to start. It’s worked fairly well for generations of journalists. The problem occurs when the reporting ends with those 5Ws and H.

Your readers are too smart and too busy to waste their time if that’s all they will gain from reading your newspaper.

Each of us, editors and reporters alike, must apply a second 5Ws and H test to each story and assignment.

  • Who – who is affected by the action or event
  • What – what does it mean for those affected
  • When – when will it affect them
  • Why – why will it affect them
  • Where — where are the people it will affect
  • How – how can they initiate response and to whom?

If you incorporate the second set of 5 Ws and H, you will be on your way to producing an indispensable newspaper.

Changes in magnitudes

Look at assignments from the eye of the reader, not from the perspective of the newsmaker.


  • The most important agenda item to a city councilman is usually not the most important issue to your reader.
  • Most agendas are in reverse order of importance.
  • Most school board members, city council members, superintendents, mayors and city managers do not want you to report on upcoming decisions that might inconvenience their constituents.

Education beat: Conceive and write stories that are important to parents and students; then, if you have time, write the stories that are important to school boards and administrators. (example: the education story that received the most positive feedback and phone calls from readers was when we published the 10 best questions a parent can ask a teacher during a parent-teacher conference.)

Police beat: Look at the beat from the perspective of a reader. Give descriptions of suspects. Write the stories for the readers, not the police.

If you have a rule that you only write about felonies, dump it. Write stories that could humor or sadden people. Warn people. If plants and porch furniture were stolen from a dozen houses in a neighborhood, write a story and warn people to be on the look out. (One of the most angry set of calls received at one newspaper was when the callers were told we didn’t warn the residents in their neighborhood of the porch thieves because the thefts weren’t felonies.)

Special editions: If your community is expecting 10,000 people to come for a community celebration, will your special edition include a map where all the ATMs are located? How about parking?

Some more examples

If your community has a college or university, when the incoming freshman arrive, do you publish a list of the ATMs near campus?

What other questions do incoming freshman have? Do you answer them?

When a governmental body makes a decision that will affect your readers, do you include a breakout box with a phone number for them to call if they have additional questions?

Empower your readers with the ability to react – to initiate response.
Ensure that you anticipate not only the reader’s next question, but also anticipate their response and first action. Make sure they don’t have to pick up a phone book or seek out another publication to take action. Make your newspaper indispensable.

Do you publish a newspaper that assumes too much on the reader’s part.
If you promote a special event, do you tell (or better yet, show with a map) your readers how to get there? The best route? Where to park? The cost? How to dress? What to look out for? What to avoid?

The test: Each time you go to an event, look for that tidbit of information or helpful hint that would have made your experience better. Make sure that type of information appears the next time you do a similar story.

Train yourself to think like a parent.

Train yourself to think like a taxpayer.

Train yourself to think like consumer.


— By Doug Toney,
New Braunfels (Texas) Heral