Nancy Conway: Readers want news, not exaggeration

By Nancy Conway

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: July 7, 2012 09:42PM
Updated: October 30, 2012 11:31PM
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Nancy Conway, Tribune editor

OK, the truth now. Do newspapers intentionally sensationalize news stories and headlines to attract readers?

“I know you guys juice up the news to get readers and sell papers or boost online numbers.”

Most journalists have heard that sentiment expressed more than a time or two. And no matter how carefully we in the mainstream press explain news selection and headline writing, some readers still believe we do that.

We don’t. Certainly we want to attract readers, but no self-respecting reporter or editor wants to cross that line into exaggeration or sensationalism. We know our reputation is based on our credibility and your trust.

We work at choosing the right words for headlines in particular. We do want to grab you — invite you to read our work. We know we don’t always get it right. In our zeal to bring you in, we could occasionally be guilty of overstatement. Of course, we make mistakes as humans do, especially if we make choices in haste or under pressure to get a story posted or make a deadline.

News is king, whether in print or online, and that’s what drives readership, not gimmicks.

We are constantly evolving our news reports and honing our presentation skills to deliver reports and analysis via the myriad devices used by our readers: a desktop computer, laptop, tablet or smartphone. Plus we are texting, tweeting and posting on Facebook and Pinterest.

How different is the news report online and in print? How different the readers?

The reports are essentially the same except there is more on our website. Everything we publish can be seen online. In almost every case, stories are posted online before you see them in the newspaper. Some stories and versions of stories are not part of the newspaper report, though. What you see in the morning paper is the last version of the night and the top of the news — what editors see as the best or most important of what we have to offer. Because paper space is costly and limited, the print edition becomes the select edition.

Print edition readers may be a bit more traditional and still appreciate the familiar feel of the paper. Some of our digital readers may be more consumers of breaking news and the quick update — although we have thoughtful, thorough readers online as well as in print.

No matter the medium — across all delivery devices — what draws readers is the big story.

What have they been for us? Missing teenager Elizabeth Smart being found stays our all time record for online visitors, even though it happened nine years ago. We were in the right place — it was a local story that became an international sensation — and we were one of only a few online operations doing live chats then.

Others attracting large print and online audiences were Smart’s testimony against her kidnapper Brian David Mitchell in 2010, the Trolley Square shootings in 2007, the death of LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley in 2008, the disappearance of Lori Hacking in 2004.

We have had our share of online wonders that go viral, like “Two Bountiful High teachers accused of having sex with the same student” in 2009, and “Grandmother arrested for dead grass” in 2007 or the video of a BYU steeplechaser crashing in 2012.

Attracting readers online has become a science. You can track interest and monitor traffic, and by using analytics — who is reading what, when and for how long — you can manage story and photo placement on the website to enhance a reader’s experience.

SEO — search engine optimization — is now de rigueur in news reports. By knowing what key words to use to attract the attention of Google and other search engines, we can see our user numbers go up. We can also push out text and email alerts to our subscribers and do the same through Twitter, Facebook and other social media — to pump readership.

Even with all the attention to digital news and the devices used to draw users online what remains the biggest draw to both online and print is that big story. News rules. And it doesn’t have to be exaggerated.

Nancy Conway is the editor of The Salt Lake Tribune. Reach her at nconway@sltrib.com.