How to build a loyal audience that lasts more than 50 years
One of my favourite journalists of all time doesn’t work on a large, metropolitan paper. He was not an award-chaser but would get my vote for developing a loyal audience base for more than half a century. My father’s best childhood mate Gary (Gus) Underwood was the editor of the Kyabram Free Press, in rural Victoria. He inspired me to be a journalist with his witty, opinionated columns and for building up a paper, treasured among the locals.
In rural communities, local news outlets are deeply valued but sadly these days on the decline. As a journalist, if you write a good story people will buy you a beer in the pub and give you leads for another. On the contrary, if you produce a misleading or offensive story, even one which is grammatically incorrect you will feel their wrath and have to work hard to build up trust again. Content may be ‘king’, but correct spelling and grammar are still one of the most powerful tools a communicator can use to connect with their audiences.
One of the best quotes I’ve seen on grammar is from US Author and Business Trainer Jeffrey Gitomer.
‘Your grammar is a reflection of your image. Good or bad, you have made an impression and like all impressions, you are in total control.’
Building a loyal following through content marketing is much like being a journalist on a country newspaper. While Gus doesn’t have a blog at age 75 he still tells a good story, writes regularly for the local paper (after locals lured him out of retirement) and offers sound advice for building an audience.
Gus’s story: How he built a loyal audience for over 50 years
Firstly, I would like to make it clear I’m from the old school. To be more precise the old, old school. I got a job as a cadet reporter at the Kyabram Free Press in northern Victoria when I was 17-years-old in 1961. More than 50 years later and at the age of 75 I’m still providing articles for the same paper and its parent company, Shepparton Newspapers.
I got my start in journalism because my uncle was a good mate of the then editor Paul Easton. Producing some sporting articles for the paper on outstanding feats of some of my schoolmates while attending Kyabram High School in the 1950s, probably helped in securing the position.
Apart from a hidden passion of always wanting to get into journalism that was about it for me as far as credentials to the do the job. I’ll also admit I didn’t dare mention in my job interview that I had failed English grammar in my intermediate certificate school year.
Reflecting back on some of my earlier efforts as a cadet journalist, Mr Easton would have got the message very early I wasn’t a super speller. He was very diplomatic whenever this happened. He would tell me people with the ability to write and capture an audience in those writings are not always grammatically savvy or a spelling wizard. Mr Easton also made a point that would-be journalists who were faultless spellers may have no idea about producing a story to capture an audience. In other words, some good journalists can’t spell and often those who can spell can’t write to inform or entertain. Personally, I interpreted this as Mr Easton seeing some talent in me as a journalist. I have worked hard on building up my word power and spelling over the years.
When I became editor of the Free Press, a position I held for 24 years, there was a lot more pressure to spell correctly and be grammatically correct because the buck stopped with me if errors made it to print. Anyone in the newspaper game will tell you that you get nasty and uncomplimentary feedback more often when you get it wrong than complimentary if you get it right.
When I first started in this game mistakes which got to print were extremely rare. A professional proofreader, sub-editor, then the editor would read every bit of copy before it went to the press.
Unfortunately, in today’s digital age with increasing online competition manpower associated with producing many newspapers and publications has been reduced to try and remain economically viable. Many newspapers, particularly the country ‘local rags’ often go to print verbatim without adequate subbing.
Mr Easton also stressed to execute my writings in a manner in readers didn’t need to have a dictionary at the ready to check what some of the words I was employing meant. He said this was a sure way of turning off your readers. He also stressed all articles or stories needed to connect with people from age six to 106.
‘‘You are not writing exclusively for academics but for everyone who can read,” was his sound advice so many years ago.
“People who can understand exactly what you are writing about will continue to read it if it’s interesting enough.”
In a social media era when many people are after quick wins, likes and followers, we can all learn from Gus about building an audience not just for today but years to come.