The publisher and editors at The Sun spend a lot of time these days thinking about readers - what can be done to keep them and what can be done to bring in new ones. Newspaper executives are worried because circulation figures have declined. When former subscribers are asked why they left, the majority say they are simply too busy to read.
With that disconcerting situation in mind, The Sun recently launched an array of new features designed to connect with readers in personal ways - regular stories about nutrition, consumer issues, commuting, neighborhood problems and getting older.
Such efforts are not new. Newspapers have long added features aimed at luring readers: horoscopes, crossword puzzles, technology and computer columns, dining-out and dining-in tips, household hints and more. Some were criticized initially by some readers but are now passionately embraced by most. Other innovations didn't take and were quietly removed.
Two of the new Sun features help illustrate this trend.
"Make Over My Meal," a monthly feature that debuted in the Oct. 11 Taste section, sounds like a candidate for a TV reality show. The concept is to find people who struggle to eat well every day and connect them with a nutritional expert who will transform their meals.
The first installment, "Starved for Time," examined the lives and eating habits of 30-year-old Lori Cumberland and her 29-year-old fiance, Kris Ulloa. Written by the well-known food writer Elizabeth Large, the article documented the life of a busy couple that literally had no time to prepare any meals. A typical dinner consisted of cereal or a smoothie, eaten standing up.
The Sun enlisted the help of Union Memorial Hospital dietitian Robin Spence to revamp the couple's eating habits given their time constraints and budget. The story, which was accompanied by graphics and photos that gave Spence's nutritional recommendations, noted how Cumberland and Ulloa's diet was radically changed. "It's awesome," Cumberland said after the makeover.
A number of readers responded. "What a wonderful article," said Deborah Katz. "Thank you so much for being practical when you `made over" their meals. ... I look forward to seeing more of these articles."
Said Barbara Hansen: "Three cheers for you, Robin Spence, and an excellent and truly helpful article. Cumberland and Ulloa are extreme examples of overstressed people who are running on empty too much of the time. ... Please keep the series going. You will be doing a real service for the nutritional health of Baltimore's citizens."
In my view, "Make Over My Meal" offered more than nutritional guidance. It was one of the best-reported stories I've read in some time about how people live today. Even if this couple would seem to have little time to read a newspaper, this kind of series should connect with many sharing similar challenges.
A new weekly feature, "The Middle Ages," began on the Oct. 15 Modern Life section front and targets issues affecting the baby boomer generation - Americans born from 1946 to 1964. The feature's label says it is about staying young, growing old and what happens in between. Written by Linell Smith, an experienced and highly regarded Sun reporter who is herself a "boomer," the column/feature seeks to "find out more about the satisfactions and struggles of this super-sized group."
The graphics art department used a photo collage of many highly recognizable boomers, including President Bush, Bill Clinton, Cal Ripken, Oprah Winfrey, Gov. Bob Ehrlich, Mayor Martin O'Malley, Bill Gates, Michael Jordan and singer Bonnie Raitt to illustrate the article. It is clear that this generation is still considered a prime newspaper reading group that has a powerful appetite for good stories about itself.
The article was, in my view, a well-written and thoughtful overview that challenged perceptions about what it means to age and offered insights about the complexity of being midlife in society today. The challenge will be to maintain focus and sustain interest in a subject that is by nature very broad. Smith said she sees this project as a work in progress.
Reader Patricia Davies said: "Your first article focusing on the baby boomer generation was quite good - not simplistic or pretentious but intelligent and enjoyable to read. I look forward to more. I'm not sure that I'm sold on `The Middle Ages' title, however."
Editors hope these and other new features will give subscribers additional reasons to read the newspaper. They also yearn for more casual readers to invest more time with the paper. More than ever, reader, your reactions matter because newspapers such as The Sun can't afford to lose you.
Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.