I’ve been a longtime proponent of focusing on local news to the point of neglecting national and international news, which, to a local market, is by definition commodity news. Why would I spend much time or newsprint on a story that television and the Internet had multiple versions of the day before?
But local? No one could do local as well as the local reporters. Local news is the moat around our castle. So long as we could give local readers news about their community, we’ll muddle through. That is the thinking.
Here’s the problem: Either local news isn’t that interesting or newspapers are writing about it the way they always have and THAT’S not all that interesting. Or both.
From a September 2011 Pew survey: “For instance, when asked, ‘If your local newspaper no longer existed, would that have a major impact, a minor impact, or no impact on your ability to keep up with information and news about your local community?’ a large majority of Americans, 69%, believe the death of their local newspaper would have no impact (39%) or only a minor impact (30%) on their ability to get local information.”
Want another study? Some academicians with newspaper backgrounds visited 50 newspapers in the 50 states. Their data, as analyzed by a writer with the Nieman Lab, concludes this: “Local news, and in particular local news online, is not something people care about as much as local journalists might hope.”
I will say “Yikes!” for all the newspaper editors out there. I will acknowledge that national news if often interesting and exciting. I’ll also counter with the supposition that it isn’t local news that is boring; it’s how it is covered and presented.
Newspapers tend to cover the community as they always have — chronicling the process of government, profiling quirky characters, editorializing with a calm, predictable voice, covering high school sports and the like. Want to know about Syria or politics in Washington or legalization of marijuana in Oregon or your favorite NBA or NFL team not in your city? Go online.
Nearly five years ago, Philip Meyer said: “There is a pretty good history of survey research suggesting that editors tend to overestimate the importance of local news. They like it because its coverage is under their control. But when survey respondents tell them they want a good national and international report, editors tend not to believe them. I have done a couple of studies — going back to 1980 (which was a different universe) — comparing street sales to page-one content. National and international stories were better for street sales. My theory: Editors liked local so much that they would bump a good national story off page one to make room for an inferior local piece.
“Local is cheap to produce if you limit yourself to stenographic coverage of public meetings. But to really cover local news, you need talented, specialized reporters who are free to dig for weeks on a single topic.”
That hasn’t changed. But much of the time, the process of government isn’t interesting or significant. Quirky characters are actually uninteresting. Editorials should be fists slamming on desks. High school sports are only interesting to people with children in high school. Worse still, layoffs have reduced the number of reporters on the street. The ones who are out there have limited time to work on a story. Want an investigative piece? Do it quickly. Need to do an indepth look at how something works? Can you get it done by 5 p.m.?
How do I know? Aside from being one of those editors for years, I have spent the past year reading the front pages of a dozen Sunday papers around the state. Sunday is where newspapers traditionally display their best work.
If editors do one thing for their newspaper readers in 2013 — yes, there are a slew of things needing to be done for their digital audience in 2013 — it should be to examine how they are covering the local news. Is it what people need to understand their community? Are we covering this because it’s vital information or because we need to fill a hole in the paper? Will this story make reading the paper an indispensable act? Because if it doesn’t — and with the circulation losses papers have suffered over the past 10 years, there is evidence it doesn’t — it’s time for a change.
Most editors know that if they leave out the crossword, the bridge column or a comic strip, they will be swamped with calls.
What happens if a story is left out? The answer to that should lead to a good, meaty New Year’s resolution to overhaul content.
* Twenty years ago, my editor returned from an ASNE conference and gave me a pin with that slogan on it.