Engaging readers in New Orleans
They want to know about more than just the story, editor says
The last line of Editor Mark Lorando's first column on how The Times-Picayune works was this: "The floor is yours."
His readers took it.
Here's a sample of the detailed, thoughtful comments readers made: This headline, published today: "Battles over abortion heat up as House Republicans pass ban" reads as if the House Republicans passed a ban on abortion, when the article's content instructs that the House Republicans banned federal funding for abortion. The word "ban" in the headline would seem to refer to the word abortion, but, after reading the article, that is not the case.
Perhaps I would find this less disturbing were this in print, given the finite size of a newspaper, but, this was online, and it appears geared only to draw clicks to the article. And, this was a T-P reporter, not Reuters, the WaPo, the NYT, or the AP.
That first column on Jan. 25, 2017, drew 277 comments, some of them from staffers who jumped in to join Lorando's conversation with readers. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, it was clear that New Orleanians held their hometown newspaper accountable regardless of platform.
"It created the need for a different level of transparency about our journalism," said Lorando, vice-president of content for NOLA Media Group, the Advance Local property that operates The Times-Picayune and NOLA.com. "It felt like the only way to combat a lot of the rancor we were experiencing was to talk it through. I think local news organizations have not been particularly good at this historically."
He learned that people were intensely curious about the process of journalism: how headlines were written; why The Times-Picayune and NOLA.com used stories from The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Associated Press; what went on in the newsroom every day and who the people were who provided local news. Some also were suspicious of a hidden agenda, and they wanted to know "not only what we know but how we learned it," Lorando said.
"Our readers and our audience are partners in our newsgathering. They want to have a voice in the journalism. They want to understand it deeply. They want a personal relationship with the people who are giving it to them," he said.
"They want to be able to ask questions and have them answered. They want to be able to share additional context and have it taken seriously."
In the "fake news" era, multi-platform digital companies can no longer continue to take the attitude of dispensing truth from on high, or risk becoming irrelevant to an increasingly interactive news audience, Lorando said. Readers want engagement, and editors and publishers have to provide it.
In addition to the column, NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune introduced Sunday Thoughts, a personal newsletter from the newsroom filled with links to previously published stories and photos and highlighting upcoming events and projects (newsletters.nola.com). Readers have been given explanations of how the news staff covers floods and why they dread incoming hurricanes as much as anyone else does.
A recurring topic continues to be bias. Lorando has explained the safeguards in place for keeping bias out of news stories. But he learned that some readers still equate New York Times and Washington Post stories with a liberal bias, and that posting both political opinion columns and news stories together under the same blog topic on the website contributed to a perception of bias. As a result, NOLA.com has separated political opinion and political news into separate blogs, just as The Times-Picayune separates them into different sections of the newspaper. (http://www.nola.com/opinions/index.ssf/2017/02/opinions_that_look_like_news_s.html.)
As for headlines, The Times-Picayune has definitely engaged readers lately.
On Jan. 14, the New Orleans Saints blew its NFL playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings in spectacular fashion – allowing the Vikings a game-winning touchdown pass in the final seconds after having kicked what should have been the game-winning field goal. That crushed Saints fans across the Gulf Coast reacted with language not repeatable in a family newspaper is not opinion, but likelihood.
The headline, taking up about half the front page, read, "Expletive. Expletive. Expletive." It went viral. (http://www.nola.com/opinions/index.ssf/2018/01/the_story_behind_that_bleeping.html)
The author was senior editor James Karst, Lorando said. "When James first told me his idea, I thought he was kidding. I sort of laughed, yeah, good one. What are we really doing?" But when he saw some page proofs, complete with a photo of the Viking receiver scampering away from a hapless Saint who missed the tackle, Lorando said he knew it was perfect.
"That thing just blew up on social media," he said. People took pictures of the front page and shared it and commented on it. It ended up being almost like a super-powered meme."
Even though print circulation continues to shrink while the digital side has experienced "extraordinary audience growth," Lorando said the front page showed the printed paper still has a role as a permanent community record.
"It is essentially a really great case study in the evolution of a front page. The assumption now when you're creating tomorrow's Page One is that everybody knows what happened. The goal is not only to inform. The goal is to try to capture what everybody in New Orleans is feeling at that moment and do it in a way that's really original and impactful."
For more information, contact Mark Lorando at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jane Nicholes is a veteran journalist based in coastal Alabama and is a regular contributor to SNPA. Reach her at email@example.com.
Suggestions for future stories and comments on this piece are welcomed.