Lee Habeeb is the Vice President of Content at the Salem Radio Network. In 2015, he began the radio show, “Our American Stories with Lee Habeeb.” Before joining Salem and helping nationally acclaimed hosts like Hugh Hewitt succeed, Habeeb had a radio show with Laura Ingraham.
How do newspapers survive in the digital age?
I think they have to do things that can translate to digital, that means things that can be repurposed in multiple formats. So anything we’re doing in (radio), we need to turn that into text that people can read and scroll. And by the way, people like to read and scroll. On the Hugh Hewitt Show, which is one of our national shows at Salem, when he does long interviews, it turns out when you capture the text of those interviews and put them on the website, it has become the number one driver on our website and we get a lot of people on the website to read those interviews because they neither have the time, not the inclination to listen to them. We’re turning the text of those interviews into money — that is we’re putting banner ads next to it, we’re gathering data from our people about what interviews they’re reading and clicking through. And most important, they’re staying on our websites longer because they’re reading something long form. So now Hewitt is actually doing longer interviews because the longer the interview is, the longer the text is and the longer the text is, the more time people are spending with us as opposed to someone else.
I would say more features, more stories about stuff that people, your campus community cares about: love, death, life, alzheimer’s. This stuff is happening all around campus life. Somebody in somebody’s family has alzheimer’s right now and somebody’s having to deal with that, and there’s a story with that that would connect with a lot of people. And the next thing you know, they’re reading about what happened with the student council, even though they might not have cared what happened with student council. Because print’s not dead. Print’s alive and it’s going to continue to be alive as long as it’s relevant to people’s lives.
Why are features deemed to be so unimportant at many papers today?
You know, when you’re in a business, looking at why your competitors may or may not do things is something I have rarely spent time on because they may have their own biases, they may have their own lack of resources, or their actual beliefs may be such that they’re actually costing themselves money. And by the way, they really wonderful thing about features is, and I actually believe this is another aspect of storytelling that is ignored. You can call it the letter to the editor. Right now, or the old days, the way that people came in and joined their paper was by writing a letter to the editor. And usually it was about something philosophical, or something they didn’t like, or something they wanted to correct. And I always thought, wow, what a silly use of this person called the community and the reader. The reader has stories too — bring them in. You’ve got to fact-check them. You’ve got to make sure they’re true. But you know what the cost would be to bring a reader’s story into your newspaper? Very small. So the question becomes if you’re the publisher and the editor of the paper — what do you really think the purpose of a paper is? And if you’re high minded and you think it should only deal with the important things of the community and it needs to come from the editor and the publisher down to the people, well then you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. But if what you think a paper is, is that it’s a thriving part of a community. That serves the community and tells the community’s stories to the community, then I don’t understand why you wouldn’t have an abundance of features and you couldn’t find them in very low cost settings. I’m in an endeavor in radio where I”m finding all kinds of stories. And for nothing — for zero cost, I’m finding some of my best stories.
Do you think that a liberal arts education sets people up to be better feature writers?
Well, I think there are two things. I think: A. everybody has a great story in them, whether they have a great education or not. But if you’re going to regularly write features, not just your own; in the community, I think everyone’s got a story. Every single human being has got a story — I deeply believe this. And if we can unearth it, that’s a journalist’s job. I think what a liberal arts education allows you to do is that it gives you enough breadth and depth of life experience through reading. My goodness, you can experience a lot of life by just opening up a book. And I think that gives you the philosophical and I think the empathetic power to attack and approach people from every walk of life and connect the dots. If you have the proper education, and I think a liberal arts education will be the cool and smart career thing to do as it relates to how to apply that training to future life. If you try and learn; if you want to study up on what the newest technology is in terms of Facebook or Instagram, or. That will change every five years. But the elements that make a great story and the nature of who that story teller is, and who can do it over and over again, I believe that is the person who has the widest and deepest breath of curiosity and knowledge.