NOLA Notes: What’s your above-the-fold rating?

One in a series of post from the zillions of words of notes I pounded into my laptop at the National College Media Convention in New Orleans.

Erica Perel showed us a front page from The Daily Tar Heel, the excellent (and Pacemaker-winning) student newspaper serving the University of North Carolina.

Perel, the DTH’s newsroom adviser, described that particular edition as a “really good daily paper.” Above the fold were a good centerpiece feature with a photo of a giant pig, a football story and a strong news lead. So where did it rank on the DTH’s 1-to-5 “above the fold” rating?

She gave it a “3.” The reason why it’s not a “4” or “5” is important.

As Perel described it at her excellent session in New Orleans, that combination of elements above the fold conveyed to readers that it was “a really good daily paper” for people who are already engaged with campus news.

In order to step up to a rating of “4” on the scale devised by DTH publications director Kevin Schwartz, the above-the-fold portion of the page must cause people who are not faithful readers of the paper to put down their phones and grab the paper because of catchy headlines and good visuals. For example, a centerpiece on sex was picked up very well.

To get a “5,” the paper must scream “Pick me up!” This usually means a big project or a special edition. (For those who love suffering, I’ll explain ratings of “1” and “2” below.)

Here’s my big takeaway:

What I would call “a newspaper for newspaper readers” can’t be the goal if you want to build your audience. Think about it: What Perel calls a “really good daily paper” will NOT bring us any new readers.

If your print product doesn’t have to worry about attracting new readers, you can stop reading here.

Still reading? I hope so. Because every year, a quarter or more of our student audience is replaced by new students who have no established habit of picking up a newspaper. Whether you know it or not, you have to fight for your print audience every edition.

Back to Perel’s session: She says having an above the fold rating helped underscore to newsroom staff members that “getting people to read the newspaper is everyone’s job, including yours.” Yes, that means editorial staff members should hand out the newspaper (I’m amazed how many newsroom types don’t do this), but it also means realizing that creating a product that readers want to take out of the rack is critically important.

Details matter. In the DTH racks, students looking at the front page actually see a little less than half the page, because a lip on their racks obscures a thin strip above the fold. So Perel looks for things like whether the dominant photo is readily understandable to someone who can only see above that point.

Every print paper has its own design goals for the cover. But generally speaking, as Erica reminded us, you want to attract readers with bold, enticing headlines and stunning, big visual elements. All of this must work together to instantly interest the harried student passing by.

The good news, from Perel: “Young people will read a paper if it’s free, convenient and relevant to the lives.” She might have added “if the cover makes the relevance obvious.”

I think it might be interesting to ask several people to post their 1-to-5 rating. Perhaps the adviser posts a number for the new issue, and so does the editor-in-chief — or frankly anyone who wants to chime in. They could add a note (on a whiteboard?) with their reasoning. If day after day our editors disagree on the ratings, that should signal we need to talk more about our above-the-fold goals.

I’m going to resist the urge to talk more about using simple metrics to drive change, but if you’re interested, check out my earlier post on how to pursue “wildly important goals.” However you do it, if you want stronger covers you’ll need a system to produce them. As Perel points out, “You can’t expect your designers to make magic happen on a daily basis without planning.”

How you bring everyone into the planning process is a topic for another day. But you start with the message that this also is everyone’s job. A student editor from The Crimson White (where I was a student journalist in ancient times at the University of Alabama) told us that the CW now will not accept articles without art. There are some exceptions, of course, but writers know they can’t just ignore the need to illustrate the story. Ideally, this will push more early conversations with photographers and designers.

At The Crimson White, by the way, a bold new design calls for one big visual to occupy almost all the space above the fold, sometimes as a backdrop for text. Check it out.

A related note: I also spent a lot of time in New Orleans listening to (and asking a million questions of) Ryan Frank, publisher of Emerald Media Group, describing the “revolution” in student media serving the University of Oregon. He said a key moment in winning over student staff to a different print presentation was when he placed their traditional front page beside a high-quality alt-weekly cover and asked them, “Which one of these would you pick up?”

That’s a good question to ask ourselves about every print product we put on the street.

Here’s a copy-paste-and-save version of the 1-5 above-the-fold scale from the DTH:

5: The paper screams “Pick me up!”

4: People who are not faithful readers of the paper will put down their phones and grab the paper.

3: A “really good paper” for people who already engaged with campus news.

2: Good content, poor presentation. Example: The lead photo shows “a building and an old guy.”

1: Only the most dedicated reader will pick it up. Nothing appealing.

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About adviserdavid

Student media director, Georgia Southern University

Posted on November 3, 2013, in Design, Financial sustainability, Leadership, NOLA Notes. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

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