5 “American Idol” lessons for news brands

By Kathleen Coleman

S-R Media

Spokane, Washington, USA


Lord knows I love Adam Lambert. It’s an obsession that began during 2009’s “American Idol” season.

I loved him with such unquestioning devotion that my sister-in-law and I almost came to blows (albeit via text messages) over his eastern-flavoured interpretation of the Johnny Cash standard “Ring of Fire.” 

“Icky, icky poo,” she typed. Onscreen, the judges agreed. “Indulgent rubbish,” opined Simon Cowell. “Unique,” said befuddled guest coach Randy Travis.

Then came Adam’s iconic rendition of “Mad World,” which ranks as one of my all-time favourite live performances.


So when singer Kris Allen ultimately bested Adam by 100 million votes to become 2009’s American Idol, I ended my relationship with the show. Done. Over. Fini.

Though Fox cancelled the show in 2016, “American Idol” rose again two years later, this time on ABC. I gave the show’s promotion suspicious side-eye for a full year, making sure my return to viewership was not a simple rebound.

I’m glad to be back in the fold of Idol fans. Watching the show’s reboot, I can’t help but think there are some lessons for those of us in the newspaper business.

1. It’s OK to be nice.

Back in the day of Simon Cowell, it wasn’t unusual for judges to humiliate contestants, though not quite as bad as wedding reception guests did in the 1998 comedy “The Wedding Singer.” 

The new Idol is markedly kinder and gentler, with current judges Luke Bryan, Katy Perry, and Lionel Ritchie finding ways to honour a contestant’s story and offer suggestions for improvement without making fun of a performance.

Face it: Newspaper staffers pride themselves on being well-informed, as well they should. This does not mean, however, that when the public calls to talk to us, we should affect a know-it-all tone or subtly belittle them for suggesting a feature on something we may find uninteresting.

2. And we can treat our co-workers kindly as well.

A case in point: I once worked at a newspaper where it was simply unheard of for reporters to suggest photo ideas to our photojournalists, especially if the ideas were feature-oriented or portraits.

Imagine my delight here at The Spokesman-Review, where my first job was features editor. I’d e-mailed a photographer about an activity at a local nursing home. At the next day’s morning news planning meeting, an assistant photo editor gruffly and loudly boomed, “We’re shooting some ladies at Rockwood Retirement Center, they’re making Easter bonnets.” He peered over his half-glasses at me and smiled.

3. Even if you lose, you may win.

The aforementioned Adam Lambert no doubt went on to much bigger and better things, though he was not crowned “American Idol.”

Taylor Hicks (hello?) beat Chris Daughtry and Katherine McPhee. Both are doing just fine.

Not everything must be full-run or produced for everyone that subscribes to your newspaper. There are healthy niches virtually everywhere, all welcomed by devoted audiences. Embrace the “losers” and market to them with equal care and tailoring to underserved audiences.

4. Be who you are.

Not everyone can be The New York Times or The Washington Post, and that is OK.

On Idol this season is lovely young woman with a haunting singing style. For her first solo performance, Laci Kaye Booth performed Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me” with her own unique twist.

If you live in an area blessed by nature, maybe your readers would love a weekly page of staff- and user-generated scenic shots. If you live in an urban locale, maybe readers would love to see unique examples of “found art” — an overgrown outdoor slab staircase or a bird’s nest in an unexpected place.

5. Tap your support network.

Ask readers to share your stories and photographs, and make it easy for them to do so. Your current audience can help build future audience.

While we may not be as appealing as the geeky kid who just sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” with shocking grace, we often do tell a great tale of a community’s successes and painful failures.

Visualise your social media channels as one big, never-ending rendition of that famous 1971 Coca-Cola commercial. 

About Kathleen Coleman

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