Catching the world’s newspapers doing something right

Some industry inspiration from the annual International News Media Association Global Media Awards

May 24, 2019
Category: Business & Work

If you are on the lookout for good news about the newspaper industry (and I am), a place worth visiting is the annual International News Media Association Global Media Awards.

This is a contest, analogous to the Pulitzers and the many other awards we cover at Poynter.org, but with a twist — the entries are not journalism per se, but business innovations and public service campaigns. The contest is open to members of the 89-year-old, 10,000-member association, whose roots are in marketing.

I was a judge this year, first for two of the 40 categories, and then “best of show” among the category winners. The awards were presented May 17 at INMA’s annual World Congress in New York.

And the grand prize went to (a favorite of mine and, apparently, of the eight other judges) … Helsingin Sanomat, the leading paper in Finland.

When a summit in Helsinki between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin was scheduled for July 16, 2018, the astute editors and publishing executives whipped together a campaign on short notice entitled “The Land of the Free Press.”

They rented nearly 300 billboards on three possible routes the leaders could follow on their way from the airport to the meeting spot. One was a welcome; the rest damning headlines, some in English, others in Russian. Among them, “Trump calls media enemy of the people” and “The media went silent during the Putin era.”

Each billboard carried the paper’s name at the bottom — and only that.

The campaign generated intense media coverage worldwide — 2,600 articles and television segments, including one on CNN, and more than a million views on social media.

As for impact, it cannot be claimed that Trump or Putin cleaned up their acts as a result, but that was not really the point. Rather the campaign was an exercise in “fighting back and supporting colleagues who are being suppressed.” the Helsingin Sanomat contest entry said.

The stunt resonated for me, and I am guessing other judges, because I see so many papers, large and small, struggling to frame the right message to readers and non-readers about the value of what we journalists do.

Helsingin Sanomat’s ode to the power of press freedom was right to the point and pegged tightly to a news event, not just a wordy statement of general principle.

A second and underdog winner (best among regional papers in North America) was AL.com’s short video series, “Chasing Corruption.” Samples, which I promise will give any beleaguered journalist a lift, are here, here, here, here, and here.

(Screenshot/Facebook)

Michelle Holmes, who has since been promoted to a job developing broadcast and film connection for the entire Advance chain, invented a social media/video group, Reckon.com, in 2017.

Reckon has spawned some improbable hits like the website, “It’s a Southern Thing,” a light but substantive tour of Southern culture with a million followers.

Holmes had a very experienced producer in-house (Marsha Oglesby) and hired a poised host (Ian Hoppe) for brisk eight-to-10-minute stories about breakthrough investigations, some of them done at great personal peril to the reporters involved.

The six stories chosen were not restricted to Alabama and dipped a bit into the past — for instance, an exposé of doctored school test results in Atlanta.

The series was funded by Facebook and shown on Facebook Watch. It got 163,000 followers and several million views. A second season has been filmed and premiered this month.

A third contest entry at the top of my list was The New York Times’ breakthrough logarithmic/AI advertising concept “Project Feels.” I wrote about Project Feels earlier this spring — a way to evaluate the emotions a story is likely to invoke and then sell premium digital ads that can be positioned instantly as the article is posted.

Here are a few capsule descriptions of other imaginative best practices I saw in the entries:

Schibsted, the Norwegian firm, considered a model of digital enterprise and diversification, paired an environmental reporter and cartoonist to create the “Green Stuff” newsletter feature for kids. The pieces were then collected into a book, which instantly became a bestseller. Now, thanks to some added foundation support, the book is available in every school in Norway.

"Gronne Greier", or "Green Stuff" in English

The august Financial Times, at its annual executive offsite retreat, blocks out time for each participant to call and interview a reader. At the 2018 meeting, a synthesis of 62 such half-hour interviews formed the basis for next year’s editorial planning. That gets beyond monitoring traffic to judge what the audience wants.

The Wall Street Journal, playing in the events space, found a winner on which it spends big and draws 3,000 participants, “The Future of Everything.” This year’s edition of the annual event was held this week, May 20 through 23.

Stuff, a hip New Zealand news operation, found that its digital sales growth was slumping. So it conducted one of those ruthless self-examinations that are beloved by management consultants. The exercise identified several terrible flaws, residues of a print sales culture. By focusing on fixes for three of those, Stuff was able to get 220 new customers and $1 million in high-margin added sales revenue. That also brought digital sales to the enviable point of more than covering print losses year-to-year.

The entry had a catchy headline too: “Digital Revenue Acquisition Unit — Innovate or Evaporate.”

No single entry from India jumped out, but collectively a whole bunch did. Because India is so populous, regional papers are able to mount ambitious public service campaigns every couple of months if they choose.

The topics range from getting abandoned cars towed away to child sex trafficking. Besides getting results, the entry documentation suggested these public service efforts often mobilize crowded street protests seeking action. I wonder if any American regional papers can lay claim to the equivalent.

My headline for this story is a lift from Ken Blanchard’s best-selling book of a few decades back, “The One Minute Manager.” Among his simplest and best maxims was the suggestion for managing struggling employees — “catch them doing something right.” (For the best and most secure employees, Blanchard said that vigorous and critical dialogue would be in order.)

The local newspaper business, IMHO, needs the same kind of boost. It has become way too subject to a “woe-is-me” mindset. A recent example was New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet’s over-the-top forecast (at INMA’s World Congress) that all local newspapers will be out of business in five years.

I will bet on the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis, the Tampa Bay Times (which Poynter owns), The Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C., and a number of others still being around in 2024. But, of course, they will not free from the intense pressure on finances and the meager success of digital revenues that have led to nonstop cycles of newsroom downsizing.

I understand the mourning for departing colleagues — this week at GateHouse and The Philadelphia Inquirer, earlier this month at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and surely somewhere else in June. Those journalists, often accomplished veterans, deserve more than a pink slip — like help finding another job.

For those who remain, it’s time to get on with the work at hand — if possible, in the high spirits and with results carefully measured as I saw from staffs of news organizations all over the world in INMA’s contest.

Note: I was not compensated for judging INMA’s Global Media Awards and attended the World Congress as working media.