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OMBUDSMAN

Does Stripes deliver where it counts?

By TOBIAS NAEGELE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 4, 2016

The lasting memory is the glaring lack of color. I visited four bases in three Persian Gulf countries last month, speaking with dozens of troops about where they get their news, their impressions of Stars and Stripes and how they keep themselves informed and entertained during deployments that stretch four to 12 months at a time.

Except for Naval Station Bahrain — the groomed, greened and compact home of U.S. 5th Fleet headquarters — these were stark outposts in the desert, where concrete blast walls line the roads, crushed stone holds down the desert dust and inadequate fluorescent lights cast a dim glow in workspaces, dining facilities and break areas. Everything is tan or brown or gray.

These are places where a newspaper — the old-fashioned, printed kind — still has great utility to inform, surprise and entertain, and I certainly met people who have made Stripes part of a morning ritual. For some, it’s a habit that started four, five or six deployments ago. “I equate Stars and Stripes with deployment” was a phrase I heard more than once.

Stars and Stripes arrives at dawn each morning, placed in stacks inside dining facilities free of charge for deployed troops and contractors in designated combat zones.

Just getting them delivered is a logistics tour de force: Staff and wire copy is and curated and laid out in Washington, digitized into page files, beamed to overseas presses, and printed, bundled and delivered in time for the breakfast rush in Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar.

It’s a daily miracle. And an anachronism. Even here, half a world away in a far-off desert, even when every deadline is met, the daily paper is out of date well before it arrives.

Technology has changed our expectations. This may be a remote desert base, but everyone I met had a phone, a laptop or both. Televisions and the internet are omnipresent and free WiFi is available in public spaces and — at Al Udeid Air Base — in living quarters. When WiFi is unavailable, wireless internet is, and troops buy it by the gigabyte, forking out $60 or more a month to get their fix of Facebook, email and news.

In Djibouti and other bases in Africa or Afghanistan, papers routinely arrive long past their sell-by date. But here, the paper arrives within seven hours of its 3 p.m. Washington deadline — remarkable considering all it takes to make that happen. And yet one has to wonder: Is the daily miracle worth the trouble? Does delivering Stars and Stripes make a difference in the desert?

Yes — and no.

There is definitely an audience for Stars and Stripes — readers who value a chance to read the news or complete the crossword puzzle and maybe be surprised. The most avid news consumers said they have other, more timely sources for news and sports. Many get news alerts on their phones or catch headlines on TV, courtesy of the American Forces Network. Not quite as many expressed minimal interest in news in any form.

The biggest group — perhaps half those I spoke with — look at the cover of Stars and Stripes most days but only pick it up once or twice a week.

An Army staff sergeant at Camp Arafjan, Kuwait, explained why: “Half the papers are uninteresting.”

Readers judge this book by its cover, deciding to take it or leave it with a momentary glance at the cover. What they’re looking for are answers to two simple questions: What can you tell me that I don’t already know? And what’s inside here that affects me?

To capture their interest, Stripes must deliver compelling reporting that readers can’t find anywhere else, especially news that affects readers’ daily lives.

One thing I found striking in my conversations with readers was how little anyone could remember about what they’d read or seen in Stars and Stripes that day or recently. I spoke with dozens of troops but only one news story resonated enough with any of them that they could describe its contents: a USA Today report about the downfall of Army Maj. Gen. David Haight, who is accused of carrying on an 11-year extramarital affair and engaging in a “swinger lifestyle.”

Granted, that’s a salacious and memorable story. But the fact that readers couldn’t recall other coverage in their daily newspaper is telling.

The day the staff sergeant said the papers were “uninteresting” was Sept. 12, the day after the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Folded in half and stacked on tabletops, the only thing soldiers could see that morning was President Barack Obama and three star-spangled banners. Unfolded in front of us as we spoke, the paper seemed stale. It wasn’t that the news was old — the story was less than 24 hours old at that moment. Rather, it was that it offered nothing new. “We already know that,” he said.

Yes, Stripes needed to cover 9/11 observances. But it also needed something original on its cover.

Later, a colonel asked if Stripes could publish “more investigative kinds of stuff, more thought pieces.” It was a good question. And I’d heard something similar from a reader just a few days before, in the food court at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. There, a former Air Force master sergeant working as an on-base contractor questioned why there wasn’t more coverage about how airmen cope with the cost of living in Germany and other high-cost duty stations — stories that got down “in the weeds” about service life.

Stripes, he said, isn’t covering the news military readers are looking for. “What are you doing each day to fight for us?” he asked. “We need a national watchdog report. That’s what you should be doing.”

I agree.

For Stars and Stripes to survive and thrive, to be uniquely valuable to its military audience, it must do more to leverage its unique market advantages: First, that it has more reporters exclusively covering the U.S. military than any competitor; second, that it has unparalleled access to military people and bases around the world; and third, that it has a hungry audience that’s not well understood by much of the mainstream media.

But simply having those assets is not enough. Stripes also has to report compelling military stories from the inside out, break up the tan haze of monotonous deployments with its own unique and colorful reporting.

There shouldn’t ever be a day that a soldier can call Stripes “uninteresting.”

Disagree with my take? Have a better idea? I want to hear from you. Send me an email at naegele.tobias@stripes.com or post a comment with this column online.

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