Attracting non-readers takes a maestro


Author and presenter Tim Harrower knows how to capture an audience's attention. His colorful and eye-catching visuals during his Writing for Non-Readers sessions at the News Industry Summit captivated writers, editors and designers looking for ideas to engage more readers, especially those who are typically non-readers.

"We want people to read our stuff," said Harrower, who is a former editor and designer with The Portland Oregonian. "This can be done in two steps: attract eyeballs as cleverly as you can; then deliver the data as efficiently as you can."  

Harrower believes that most newspapers do not know what people read. Studies have shown that the least read stories are often long features. Most people spend about 30 seconds on a page with long-form paragraphs while they spend 60 seconds looking over a page with short paragraphs and sidebars.

"Readers are impatient and busy," he said. "No one reads the newspaper like journalists do."

Harrower offered the following suggestions for making pages more interesting and readable:

1. GET A BIGGER TOOLBOX - Use bullet items, Q&A stories for profiles or for complex issues, quizzes, maps and contests. The editor's toolbox can also include step-by-step stories, top 10 lists and statistics that can be designed as graphics.

2. DO MORE CHUNKING - Divide a long story into smaller, more easily digestible chunks of information. Condense data rather than using long-form paragraphs. Harrower said USA Today mastered this approach years ago.

3. COLLABORATE - Working together as a team is imperative. Everyone who is going to touch the story – writers, editors, photographers, designers – should spend five minutes kicking around the story and discussing how the final product will look. The collaborative brainstorming process shapes stories before they are written.

4. USE 'THE MAESTRO CONCEPT' - Most newsrooms have an assembly line process where a writer turns in the story, the editor edits, and then gives it to designers. Harrow said this is fine for making sausages but not for producing reader-friendly pages. He suggested appointing a visual journalist who orchestrates the interplay between staffers using a story planning form.

Harrower distributed a story-planning worksheet to help teams integrate writing, editing, art and design.

"The Maestro Concept could be the one thing you learn at this meeting that you can take home and make a difference," Harrower said. "The handout is the key because it streamlines the process."

The first step, according to Harrower, is to describe the story in 25 words or less, which kicks off the planning. The number one question is why should I care. As an example, he showed an old-style story about alien abductions with nothing more than a mediocre photograph, headline and lots of text. The redesigned version included sidebars about each "victim," another on how to protect oneself from aliens, and a map showing where abductions allegedly occurred.

Does all this take longer for a reporter to write? Harrower says it may take an extra hour or two, but the results are worth it because more readers will be spending more time looking at pages and getting the information they need.

For more tips and worksheets from Harrower, visit

Mary Ann DeSantis is a former SNPA employee (1989-1998). She is now a Florida-based freelance writer and can be reached through her website at or via email at You may also follow her on Twitter @maryanndesantis.

Summit, Harrower


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