Engagement Story ideas

For newspaper readers, advice can add a lot of spice

Former magazine editor Rix Quinn writes a weekly feature for 100-plus newspapers, and business biographies for trade magazines.

What writing format has flourished in American newspapers – and magazines – for over 200 years? If you answered “advice columns,” give yourself a warm handshake.

Yes, these features have been around longer than this country. Even way back in 1722, Ben Franklin wrote a question-answer column (“Silence Dogood”) for his brother’s newspaper in Boston.

An advice column offers three distinct advantages: (1) It gives the reader a chance to interact with the writer. (2) Experts can offer ideas on virtually any subject, and the column can even be sponsored by an advertiser. (3) Most important, advice columns are often cut out of the paper, saved, and quoted around the home or office.

Expert advice is big business

Think of all the famous writers who’ve offered advice over the years. We’ve all heard of Ann Landers and Dear Abby, who offer personal advice. And there’s also Miss Manners, and Hints from Heloise, plus loads of other columns about religion, and car maintenance, and animal care, and clothing selection, and internet use, and…well, you name it.

I’ve often heard that advice and self-help is a gigantic business. Americans reportedly spend $11 billion a year on self-help!

Let me share a personal story about how I discovered the power of advice features.

Many years ago, I worked for my Dad’s trade magazine company. He was a former newspaper editor.

He told me one informal way to gauge a story’s impact was to find out how many times it got forwarded to another person, or displayed in an office or home. This meant the reader cared enough to clip the article out of the publication.

What stories do people clip out?

I researched more, and found out folks displayed clips on office bulletin boards or home refrigerators. (Did that mean the news had gotten cold?)

In homes, people posted family photos, children’s artwork, obituaries, invitations, grocery lists, and advice articles.

At the office, workers displayed quotations, business cards, calendars, cartoons, and advice articles.

Of course, today that “clipping” is mostly electronic as readers link to the column in social media or forward a link by email.

Clip-ability equals memorability!

We made consistent efforts to shorten news and feature articles to under 250 words. We carried many brief quotations from industry executives.

We posted famous saying on the back of subscription renewal cards. And we regularly carried advice features from business experts…not only from the industries we served, but from experts in other professions too.

How to get started?

How many experts could offer advice in your community? Do you have an accountant, or a dentist, or an exercise studio, or somebody else who might want to write – and sponsor – a question-answer column?

I’m convinced that each column should be under 250 words. Each column should offer an e-mail address, and ask questioners to write to that address.

Here’s what we did: After we received a question, we did not publish the questioner’s name unless they gave us specific, written permission.

And…each column carried a disclaimer that said something like this: “Answers offer the views of this column writer only, and not this publication.” I am NOT an expert on this! You should check with your attorney for specific wording.


I’ll be glad to talk to you more about advice columns…for free. Just call me at 817-920-7999 or email me at [email protected]



Newspaper management

A magazine guy offers ideas for newspapers

I’m a trade magazine (specialty publications) dude. I’ve been an editor or publisher for over 30 years. And I’ve spent hours sitting in newspaper seminars, listening to weekly and daily publishers. Why?

Well, we both buy paper and ink. We both publish on a regular schedule. We both try to serve our communities. We often feature articles about leaders in our communities.

We both need subscribers and advertisers to stay in business. And we would love to have repeat advertising.

In this little report, I’ll suggest a few things I’ve learned in the magazine trade that might be helpful to you.

Brief background

I feel part of both newspaper and magazine industries. My Dad Bill edited weeklies in three East Texas towns before starting a small magazine company after World War II. (During the war, he edited an Army daily newspaper.)

He felt “serving the reader’s needs” was a mission both industries should embrace. Most of his friends were newspaper people. We subscribed to both Fort Worth papers, and lots of consumer magazines.

I continued my interests in both high school and college, serving on a newspaper and literary magazine. After retirement from magazines, Dad wrote non-fiction books– and articles for national magazines and newspapers — well into his 90s. When he died – at age 102 – he was likely this country’s oldest surviving editor.

And, I am proud to say he was an early member of the Texas Press Association, dating back to the 1930s.

Newspaper and magazine differences

You publish daily or weekly. Many magazines publish only monthly or bi-monthly.

You cover a geographic region. Trade magazines cover a profession or an industry.

You focus on local and national news. Trade publications primarily report on news or products that impact a profession.

You usually deliver a broadsheet or tabloid-sized product. Trades mostly deliver a glossy magazine, or a digest-sized edition.

Magazine content

Trade magazine content is specialized, because we are talking to a group of readers in the same profession. Therefore, we constantly encourage reader feedback.

In addition to industry news, we frequently offer an expert’s column, or a how-to feature about a professional skill. We might offer a “forum” section, where readers interact about an industry problem.

Our letters to the editor are sometimes technical. Our new product section is industry-specific.

Interviews with industry innovators are frequent. And so are biographies of prominent folks in the profession.

Magazine ideas you might try

 In my job, I discovered several ideas that worked well for us. You might test these thoughts at your publication:

  1. PREDICTIONS – We generally scheduled this section for the end of each year. Many industry folks loved to air their projections for the year ahead.
  2. ARCHIVES – In most issues, we looked back five, ten, or 20 years, and ran stories from our files. This was very popular, and got lots of comments.
  3. QUIZZES – We would occasionally offer prizes to readers who could answer the most questions. A sure winner for reader feedback.
  4. QUESTION-ANSWER FEATURES – These have been big in newspapers for years. In our magazines, we might ask guest experts to respond to reader questions.
  5. CONTESTS – There are probably more sponsorship opportunities for newspapers than there are for specialty magazines. You might host contest entries for best Main Street store design, a children’s art contest, or a high school writing contest.
  6. AD POSITIONS – We offered guaranteed ad placement – next to a popular column or feature – to our best advertisers.
  7. INSERTS – We accepted ad pre-prints provided they could be glued-in, or attached to the magazines.
  8. DIRECTORIES – Several times a year, we offered directories of products or services useful to the industry. This offered huge advertising opportunity.
  9. SPECIAL ISSUE THEMES – We ran several of these annually. Special themes might be Upcoming Trade Show; Products of the New Year; Industry Leader Interviews; New Year Predictions: 20th (or 25th, etc.) Anniversary Issues; Repair and Replacement Parts, etc.
  10. SIZE VS. FREQUENCY – One of the most common questions to our ad department: “With my budget, should I run one large ad or several small ones?” Our opinion: Frequency is more important than size.
  11. CIVIC CLUBS – You may already do this. But, offer to speak frequently to local civic, community, or church groups. It’s free publicity, and often helps you get recognition as a local expert. (We spoke at trade and industry events frequently.)
  12. NATIONAL ADVERTISING – You might want to test some per-inquiry ads in your newspaper. You might consider using a service like to do this.
  13. DUAL EVENTS – Have you considered hosting an event in association with local schools, downtown merchants, or a hospital? That might be a health fair, crafts display, back-to-class event, or senior citizens’ gathering. Goal: Public service and public awareness.
  14. COUPONS – I keep hearing that coupons for certain products test well. This decades-old idea may work for you. How about trying it on non-traditional ads? (Example: Bring this coupon to our insurance agency to receive a free report on different insurance types.)
  15. ONLINE EDITIONS – Many of my magazine friends now publish both a print AND an online edition. They have found that each format lends itself to a slightly different audience. Also…some advertisers may choose one format over the other.
  16. ONLINE OPPORTUNITIES – What if you owned your own radio station, and it broadcast only your messages? Pretty good deal, huh?

I record lots of one-minute sound ads for magazine publisher clients. These ads can be offered to advertisers, then placed on both the publication’s and the advertiser’s web sites. In addition, advertisers can attach these small audio files to e-mails, and send them to their clients too.

For more details on this, call me at 817-920-7999, or e-mail [email protected]

MY PERSONAL SECRET – Several years ago, I was told that newspapers were often written at the 9th to 11th grade level. Yet the average adult reading level is reportedly about 7th to 8th grade.

I’m also told that when people read for fun, they like to read about two grades below their skill level.

My strategy? I write at 7th to 8th grade level. I test my work with this readability test tool: