Each year, the 14 newspapers that make up Southern Newspapers Inc. undergo standardized evaluations emphasizing the quality of the print product and its content.
"Content is always going to be the thing that drives the motor. It's really the king of everything we do," said Dolph Tillotson, president of SNI.
The goals are a common understanding across the chain about what makes a good newspaper, and demonstrated improvement annually. The standards cover the basics: writing, reporting, enterprise work, headlines, cutlines, advertising, the editorial page, community news, reader involvement and more.
Tillotson said the process has evolved over several years from the hiring of the American Press Institute as a consultant to evaluate all papers to what is now a combination of recommendations by the American Society of News Editors and a committee of SNI managing editors and publishers who made ASNE's standards more appropriate to their own relatively smaller papers in Texas and Alabama.
Currently, each newspaper submits a week of papers to Tillotson, who reads them and does a written evaluation, with a point system, of how well each meets the individual standards. Publishers and managing editors also do their own self-evaluations.
Within the last three years Tillotson has added face-to-face meetings to discuss individual strengths and weaknesses of each paper. "We think that kind of one-on-one direct dialogue has produced results more than any other thing we've tried so far," he said.
Newspaper executives are asked to present improvement plans. These may include such details as writing better cutlines, using larger photographs or generating more enterprise stories. Over time, Tillotson said, the standards have become largely similar for non-daily, small and large dailies.
Defining excellence proved to be an area that needed work. Tillotson said it turned out that busy newspaper executives might use the same terminology, but their ideas and definitions might be different. For example, he said, "We've had a lot of difficulty over the years getting people to really understand and fully appreciate what an enterprise story is, versus just what a good feature story is."
The most improvement across the chain has been in enterprise reporting and the editorial pages, Tillotson said. And the commitment of publishers and editors to their products and their communities has proven to be crucial.
"The papers that generally do best in these evaluations are much harder on themselves than other papers are in their self-evaluations. In other words, their internal standards are much more rigorous in most cases than my standards would be.
"The other thing I think is really critical about the overall perception of what we're doing in terms of building better content is that in our small newspapers the publisher's role is absolutely critical." The publishers must be involved in their communities and provide leadership, encouragement, expectations and resources to their staffs, Tillotson said.
Surprisingly, what doesn't appear in the evaluation standards is the role of digital media and the Web. The omission is deliberate in a company that generates more than 90 percent of its revenue from print.
"We have a somewhat different philosophy about Web development than the other newspaper groups do," Tillotson said. "And one is, we don't necessarily see the immediate, as in next five years, conversion to the Web as being the answer to our business problem."
Tillotson said he doesn't consider himself a Luddite. But Web development has proven costly for SNI, and the company has struggled to make money off it. An investment in improved print content, on the other hand, carries over to the Web, he said.
"We are still a print newspaper company. We do that consciously and with a great deal of thought philosophically."
Download SNI's Editorial Standards:
For more information contact Dolph Tillotson at email@example.com.
Jane Nicholes is a freelance writer and editor based in Daphne, Ala., and a former editorial writer for the Press-Register in Mobile. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.