No more boring special sections

Peggy Scott | News editor, Leader Publications, Festus, Missouri | Circulation size: 62,000 direct mail weekly

What’s the idea and how is it useful to other newspapers?

Pet photos stacked upFaced with a calendar full of special sections, Leader Publications decided to replace unexciting stories that the newsroom didn’t want to write anyway with reader-submitted photos and photo contests. The result has been special sections that fly off the shelf. Cash prizes are usually offered for the photo contests, but the amount is far less than would be spent on producing articles. The real motivator is that readers have the chance to have their photos appear in the newspaper, and they love to encourage their friends to be watching for the upcoming special section.

We've had many successful special sections:

  • Show Off Your Grandkids
  • Picture Your Pets
  • Way to Go (vacation photos)
  • Leader Family Christmas Album (holiday photos)
  • Veterans Day section (current and historic photos of veterans)
  • Wedding Fair section (This contest changes every year, from wedding day photos, wedding day blunders, beautiful dresses, proposals, etc.)
  • A Little Slice of Home (home show section where readers share what makes their home special to them)
  • Others: home improvement, senior magazine, etc.

The first Show Off Your Grandkids contest was held in winter 2000 and attracted more than 180 entries. The concept has demonstrated staying power. In June 2014, the photo contest drew more 200 entries.

Ultimately, the concept was designed to inexpensively generate copy for special sections. It’s a good way to reduce costs and boost sales of special sections, increase newspaper website traffic and bring in community participation to boot.

How to measure success

Bulldog in a devil costume

Leader Publications continues to enjoy a high response from readers. Each time a photo contest is announced, the mail fills with envelopes and readers stop by the paper to submit their photos.

More than 200 submissions came in for the latest Show Off Your Grandkids special section, which filled the 24-page printed publication. Leftover photos were published online. As a bonus, that free content drives traffic to the website.

Staff looks forward to mail call and the great photos that arrive daily during each contest. The newsroom never has to worry about how to fill these sections, and staff has a lot of fun with it.

Our readers look forward to the various special sections fueled with reader-submitted photos. People are delighted when their submissions make it into print. They also love to see photos their neighbors submitted.

What are the contest rules?

Rules are pretty straightforward:

  • All photos must have been taken by the person submitting them.
  • No studio photography is allowed.
  • Names of people in the photo and/or a caption must be included.
  • Age is restricted to 50 and above for the senior section.

What are some wrinkles ironed out through experience?

Insist they send hard copy for photo contests. If not, they are printed out on copier paper at the newspaper, which makes it more difficult for a good photo to win a photo contest.

Don’t give digital resolution guidelines unless they ask. If there’s an inquiry, 300 dpi is sufficient, but if they don’t know to ask, they probably won’t know what it means.

The rule for no studio photography came about because people were submitting professional photos of pets and grandkids. It came down to copyright and fairness issues.

How have the special sections evolved?

In 2014, Leader Publications called the Veterans special section to a halt. In its first few years there was a tremendous response including submissions as far back as to the Civil War, but in 2014 not many photos came in. Staff hypothesizes that after several years of the contest, families had harvested the best photos out of family albums already. The newspaper received enough to run the section, but a backup plan was in place: Editors had a list of story ideas on veterans ready to pull out for reporters if the content was needed.

In contrast, the section on grandkids is going strong after 15 years.

Before the Leader website launched in 2011, staff would actually be disappointed that not enough photos could run. So when the Leader started its website in 2011, space was made for more photos to be shared.

What resources were required to achieve your success?

The biggest investment is in staff time to organize submissions, scan photos and type in cutlines or captions for print and Web products.

A cash prize of about $100 for first place, $50 for second place and $25 for third place help encourage submissions. Contests are promoted in the paper. Each contest has a set of rules published in the newspaper and online. For walk-in inquiries, front office staff also needs easy access to the rules.

Also, we don’t need to pay for an online contesting platform to make it work.

How long did it take you from idea to implementation?

In terms of promoting a given contest, about two months is sufficient from kickoff to publication. Milestones for the grandkids contest this year included:

  • First promotional story in the paper: April 26
  • Deadline for submissions: May 25
  • Publication: June 14
  • Publish bonus photos online weekly: Starting June 21

How long did it take you from implementation to break even or success?

The first venture, Show Off Your Grandkids contest back in winter 2000, was an instant success.

Any other lessons learned?

We review the contests annually and make any adjustments, such as those mentioned above, to rules or guidelines on a rolling basis.

Supplementary materials

Picture Your Pets promotional story

A promotional story for the Picture Your Pets special section

A Family Christmas Album

A Christmas gift guide from 2012.

Holiday special section promotional story

A story published in the newspaper to encourage participation.

Wedding Fair 2013

A wedding fair special section.

Grand Times, June 12, 2014

A magazine targeted at seniors with a "show off your grandkids" contest.

Grand Times, Oct. 2, 2014

A magazine targeted at seniors with a "picture your pets" contest.

Veterans Day 2013

A special section devoted to veterans.

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Peggy Scott's photo
Peggy Scott is the news editor and webmaster for Leader Publications, as well as the publisher of three weekly newspapers with a combined circulation of 62,100 in Jefferson County, Missouri. Scott has worked at the Leader's headquarters in Festus for 15 years, where her duties include reporting, editing, page design and website management. She also helps the advertising staff with special projects including a fledgling “deals” program. Scott spearheaded the Leader’s entry into the digital world with A 1985 mass communications alumnus of Southeast Missouri State University, Scott started her career as a reporter at a weekly newspaper in Poplar Bluff. A few months later, she was hired as a reporter at the Southeast Missourian in Cape Girardeau. In addition to newsroom duties, Scott had the opportunity to help manage special projects for the daily paper including the start up of In 30 years of newspaper work, Scott has earned numerous state and national awards for both reporting and design. She and her husband, Rob, have four children. She loves parades.