Restoring a sense of community ownership in the local paper

Two days ago, I wrote about how “our newspaper” became “the newspaper.” I ended the post with a copout: “Newspapers — new organizations, actually – can take many steps to make people feel a sense of ownership and partnership in their journalism. Some are already doing it. But that’s another post.”

Many commenters left suggestions. Here are some more:

* Figure out what jobs people need to have done. That came from the 2005 Newspaper Next project. Both Steve Buttry and Justin Ellis evaluated the success of that project this past fall. (Answer: Not all that successful.) OK, the problems still remain and answers are still out there. Revisit it. What does the community need? Too often news organizations are focused on what they want to give the community. That’s a notion rooted in the boomtimes when newspapers dominated their markets. Now circulation and revenue trends indicate that the community doesn’t need what papers are doing.

* Develop an engaging, constructive social media voice. Ideally, the top editor would be on Facebook and Twitter talking with people in the community — really talking, not just posting links to the paper’s website. She would seek out everyone who lives in the circulation area and invite them to join in. (A lot of people would be flattered when the editor invites them into her circle.) She would be active and attentive. Best of all, she would have a personality that suggests she wants to help, to listen, to improve things.

* Forbid all anonymous online comments. Most people want to live and visit in communities in which real names are used.

* Release obits and wedding announcements from paid advertising. They should be free. They do one of the things newspapers say they want to do — track the passages of the community. You want people to say, “Hey, I saw in the paper that Sheila is getting married.” I know how much money obits bring in. (Weddings don’t bring in that much because so few people are using papers to announce them.) The elimination of one page of newsprint each day would cover the lost revenue. And I would eliminate one of the pages devoted to national/world wire copy. (While I’m at it, pay the person who takes obits to ensure that he knows how to spell, how to follow style and where the local landmarks are. His primary goal should be to make sure every single obit is perfect.)

* Hire someone to answer the phone. In my old job, I heard from readers and advertisers who couldn’t get a real person to answer the phone and who reached deadends in phone trees. Imagine the dividends in having someone answer the phone who cared about getting you help. I know the cost of a phone operator, too. I promise media companies can afford it.

* Unleash editorial pages to kick ass and take names. The institutional newspaper editorial voice is often like reading a textbook. I want people to talk about the editorial in the morning paper. Let them hate it — that’s ok. The readers you care about will respect you for saying it.

* Tell the truth in political reporting. This seems obvious but it is increasingly hard to do.  Government reporters know who the crackpots are and what the crackpot ideas are. But they err on the side of “objectivity” and don’t describe them as crackpot. Or unlikely. Or contradictory to something said by the same person in the past. Readers deserve the truth about Ron Paul’s past comments, Rick Perry’s term as Texas governor, and Mitt Romney’s record at Bain. At this point it seems as if reporters are only covering talking points and gotcha moments. That tends to make everyone but political partisans sick of it.

* Create content the community needs and that people care about. It is community news that many of us know as “chicken-dinner news.” It is strong watchdog reporting that takes on issues of wasted tax money, fraud in government or an injustice involving the little guy. If your own staff doesn’t read the paper every day — and I assure you that many of them don’t — you need to get a clue that your content isn’t relevant enough.

These are just a beginning. I know you can come up with many more, and I encourage you to do so either in the comments and/or at your own workplace.

These won’t bring back the times when “everyone” subscribed to the paper. But they will restore some people’s trust in the paper. Will it translate into dollars and cents? I don’t know. But journalists should embrace the idea of trust between them and readers. That’s the only thing we have going for us.

(P.S. I know some of my former staff are saying, “Where the hell has this guy been.” I apologize for that. It’s amazing the clarity of purpose that comes with having time to think about things.)

3 thoughts on “Restoring a sense of community ownership in the local paper

  1. More great stuff, John. At two of our clients, WLEX-TV in Lexington, KY, and KATC-TV in Lafayette, LA, the news director – the top guy/gal in the shop – manages the Facebook page, and the results are staggering in terms of interaction and fan numbers. It makes sense that the person in charge should interact with the public, and the public’s response has been amazing. Great model. Now if I could just convince everybody….

  2. John, your mention of hiring someone to answer the phone brings to mind a moment that happened earlier today.

    I was coming back to the office from a meeting around 2 p.m., and there was a line of people at the front counter. I looked to see if anyone was holding something that was obviously meant for the newsroom, and most of them were holding subscription renewal forms. And so, because I don’t know how to process subscription renewals, I walked on back to the newsroom.

    As I did so, I realized how squarely that ran counter to everything I learned when I worked retail jobs. In retail, or at least in a well-run store, it doesn’t matter what’s on your personal to-do list — if there’s a customer waiting, you stop and help them.

    Next time that happens, I’m going to make a point of greeting the people in line, even though I can’t help them with what they’re there for. But to take it a step further, what if everyone in the organization were trained — and empowered — to do all of the basic customer service tasks? I’m not saying reporters have to know how to take classified ads or classified reps have to take an eight-hour photography course. And maybe it’s more practical at small organizations than larger ones. But there’s no reason some level of crosstraining can’t happen — enough for an editor to know how to renew a subscription for someone.

    And, no, you don’t want everyone doing everything all the time. That would be chaotic and inefficient in any organization larger than four or five people. But we could certainly stand to have fewer silos and more general knowledge of each other’s functions.

  3. I’m way late to this, but two observations: First, Newspaper Next I was WILDLY successful. We figured out afterward that it was successful because it let newspapers take incremental steps and think they were really innovating — we didn’t push them far out of their comfort zones. When Newspaper Next II came along, asking executives to rethink radically what their mission was, we got massive pushback. It was just too hard, and so almost everyone abandoned it. I’m constantly amused and frustrated that now, four years later, some of the things N2 II talked about are finally starting to appear on a few radar screens.

    And second, to Erik: I think a good policy is to include a day in every other department as part of new employee orientation. You won’t know all the ins and outs of how to process a subscription, or load a press (something I’ve always wanted to learn), or take a classified ad, but you’ll understand how important those things are. As a result, you’ll be more comfortable doing what you wish you’d done when you saw the crowd in your lobby, or maybe you’ll have a better idea of how to solve a problem. Why, after all, were there so many people waiting in line to renew a subscription? Perhaps they’re not online? Maybe you have a staffing problem? Maybe they are aving trouble renewing via your website? (But hey, at least they were renewing!) Anyway, my $0.02.

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