Quit whining and swing for the fences: a newspaper success story

In his July 2009 editor’s letter, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter gives newspapers a little advice:

“My suggestion to newspapers everywhere is to give the public a reason
to read them again. So here’s an idea: get on a big story with
widespread public appeal, devote your best resources to it, say a quiet
prayer, and swing for the fences.”

In the column, Carter illustrates his point with an example from Britain’s The Daily Telegraph. The age-old broadsheet moved away from Fleet Street, installed a young editor, beefed up its website, got reporters blogging and tweeting and generally did all the things newspapers everywhere are doing to stay alive. Carter notes:

“To many in the business, it seemed the Telegraph had fallen prey to the same near-lunatic fascination with its Web site that has been bedeviling American papers, not least the Times. You might think the Telegraph was following the general battle plan for all papers going off a cliff everywhere.”

But then one dogged reporter latched on to a story and wouldn’t let go. And after pushing for four years for a Freedom of Information request, hit the jackpot: detailed expense reports of all 650 members of the House of Commons. The numbers and the details were an absurd abuse of the public trust, and citizens had a right to know.

The resulting story became “the paper’s biggest investigation in its 154-year history” for which “45 staff members and numerous lawyers spent two months in a secured area of the paper’s offices, secretly preparing an epic series for publication.”

The story broke on the Telegraph‘s website and was printed in the next day’s paper. The print edition on the first day sold out.

A special hub on the website is devoted to the MP’s Expenses story, with the stories, commentary, videos, photos and all of the details categorized in various easy-to-use (and some fun) ways (by political party, “bizarre claims,” “the saints”).

The story had a real effect on the public and on the House of Commons. People wanted to read it. As Vanity Fair‘s Carter noted:

“The story was so compelling that competing papers were grudgingly
forced to illustrate their reports on the affair with shots of the
Telegraph’s banner headlines.

And they say newspapers are dead.”

In a BBC story, “MP expenses: A triumph of journalism?“, a U.K. journalism professor said the case shows that “stories still sell newspapers.” (This BBC story also provides further details on unofficial sales figures and web traffic at the Telegraph after the story broke.)

University of Kent journalism professor Tim Luckhurst said:

“They have also demonstrated that professional journalists have the ability to interpret and explain complex material clearly.

This has been a triumph of old media skills in a convergent multimedia world. [Political blogger] Guido Fawkes is good, but deciphering and recounting such a mass of detail demands resources that lone bloggers are unlikely to deploy.”