Fix Local News Or Die*

Sunday update: I will offer opinions how to do this in a few days. Meanwhile, read Steve Buttry and Guy Lucas.

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.

16 thoughts on “Fix Local News Or Die*

  1. What do you mean by “local”? Most editors think of it being the trade zone they attempt to cover, but they’re wrong. The people of Lancaster County Pennsylvania think their locality is the county, and they’re wrong, too. Someone who lives in the northern town of Ephrata is rarely going to buy a haircut,a pizza, or a lube job in Solanco (SOuthern LANcaster COunt), or even in the other northern town of Lititz. A locality is typically about the size of a school district.

    And that makes a local-oriented strategy reasonable to implement.

    Big newspapers are too expensive for a barber shop to advertise in. If there was a Northside High School newspaper, oriented on news of the school, the churches, and carrying local ads, carrying the obituaries, garage sale notices, and wedding of people the readers know, people will learn to enjoy the newspaper.

    Sure, the newspapers have editions, but do the good reporters work on the editions? No, they work on the big newspaper. The big newspaper has no future because it’s competing with radio and television stations that have no choice but to serve a regional audience..

    But your bigger advertisers can’t afford to place ads in 20 small publication. You need to charge 5 times as much as that same ad would cost in your current big newspaper. You’d print an insert to go in all 20 small newspapers. Think of the insert as following the original strategy of USA Today: a second newspaper that does very little to cover local news. It might cover city government and business news, as well as those all-critical grocery ads.

    We’ve been fighting the immediacy of radio sine the 1930s, the moving pictures of television since WWII, and then color television since the 1960s, but having a reputation with local advertisers, newspapers can offer a internet television local news station. You would have your reporters carry a camera and tripod, producing both video segments and print stories. Your internet television station would offer each of these stories as video podcasts, and have a streaming program like CNN Headline News. While local broadcasters have the evening news running a half hour at 10 or 11, your viewers could flip the input of their TV from the cable box to the computer, and sit back, relaxing, and getting a much more complete news feed than the broadcasters offer. You can repeat every 43 minutes this afternoon, every 71 minutes this evening, and intersperse local news with local weather and traffic every ten minutes. Come at YOUR convenience, and we’ll take as much time as it needs. Or if a story takes longer than the entire community might be interested in, your reporter gives a short version for the streaming feed, then your anchor/editor announces that there’s more to the story, and you can see the full video of the story among the other news pods on your site. They already have short interviews on The Daily Show with a longer version on their website.

    If there are twenty high schools in your city, that’s ten football games per week. The evening news of a local broadcast can spend w-3 minutes per game if they have a special half-hour for high school football, but you can offer full games as video pods. That’s advertising revenue that would appeal to automotive businesses and sports bars. Show the action in part of the screen and their ad in another part and tell advertisers their ads won’t be zipped past by TiVO owners.

    No, it won’t be easy. There will be reporters that won’t take to video. There will be a lot of problems to solve. But the reduced cost of printing and delivering 20 local newspapers once a week, versus one regional newspaper per day, the extra revenue from businesses that can’t currently justify advertising to the whole region, the extra revenue that’s currently going to broadcast stations, make this a suitable strategy.

    Need I remind anyone that circulation revenue doesn’t even cover the cost of newsprint and delivery? The news doesn’t get sold; it’s just there to attract eyes to the ads running next to it.

    And there are unaddressed questions. Can you get enough job printing customers to keep your press room busy all week? What can you do with the trucks and drivers you need to deliver the local newspapers on what is currently food day? Could you eliminate 90% of your fleet and deliver 10 newspapers on Mpnday. 10 on Tuesday? Or can you farm out delivery to a local cartage company?

    Fix local news? It’s a whole lot easier when you realize that “local” is a lot smaller area than your city, and that a printing press puts us in the “history” business, not the “news” business. Deliver timely news with the internet, and use narrow-casting to leave broadcasters in the dust!

  2. A recent biography that shows the power of local news: TUPELO MAN by Robert Blade. The book looks at the role of the Northeast Mississipi Journal in the Development of Northeast Mississippi.

  3. Seriously, though, readers want personalized news, not local news. For some people there is plenty of overlap, but imagine a Venn diagram with one circle representing “personal” and the other circle representing “local.” The area of overlap historically was all a reader could hope for. Now that the web allows for personalization, that overlap provided by the newspaper isn’t good enough. And because the newspaper is such a random-ass assortment of stuff, on some days there’s no overlap. That’s why comics and crosswords are so important. It’s the only part of the product that’s predictable, useful and made into habit.
    For me, the Washington Post is my “local” paper. It’s known for having a great sports section. I love sports. I read almost nothing in the WaPo sports section. They don’t cover college football well, or the Oregon Ducks at all. Go figure.

  4. “Fix local news or die” woke up a couple of my dormant brain cells. I remember getting one of those yellow buttons. I wasn’t at the 1993 ASNE conference in Baltimore, but Frank Denton was, and he brought back both buttons and provocative ideas about how to survive by providing local news.

    Then the editor of The Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, Frank went on to chair ASNE’s Readership Issues Committee that produced two invaluable, practical guides for understanding and improving local news: “The Local News Handbook” (1999) and “The Local News Toolkit” (2001). Sad to say, I don’t believe either book is still in print or available in digital form, but there is a sampling here: http://files.asne.org/kiosk/reports/99reports/1999localnewshandbook/. Some newsrooms may have copies buried in the library; both books are treasure troves of ideas, strategies and tactics, and well worth excavating.

    One of their key insights is that “local news” equals “community news” and that a “community” isn’t limited by geography. Proximity certainly helps identify some of “my” communities; for examples, Mount Airy, N.C., where I live; Surry County, where I pay my property taxes; Winston-Salem, where I often shop; and Raleigh, where my state government does whatever it does. Looking beyond those locales, “The Local News Handbook” identifies at least 10 general types of “local” communities to which an adult typically belongs. Continuing with my own example, my “local” (to me) communities include fans of the Carolina Panthers and people concerned about politicians’ actions in Washington. The handbook and toolkit both suggest ways to improve “local” news coverage of those non-physical communities.

    Though it’s more than a decade old, the Readership Issues Committee’s guidance for news organizations remains relevant today, Yes, the World Wide Web in 1999 was barely out of kindergarten, but cable-access channels carrying local news text and ads, voice-mail delivery services and fledgling Internet services such as Prodigy and Compuserve all posed competitive technological threats to newspapers. What was true then and true now is this: news providers must compete to survive. I agree with you, John, that if we’re going to pick our fights (and, with limited resources, we must), then we should choose to fight on our home turf; i.e., our readers’ communities.

    P.S. In the Baltimore Sun’s archives I found a preview article about the 1993 ASNE convention. To my surprise, tablet computers were a concern even then.

    Staff writer James Bock wrote, “The editors will revisit a perennial question: Are ink-on-paper newspapers doomed to extinction in an electronic age? Roger F. Fidler, director of Knight-Ridder Newspapers’ Information Design Laboratory, says that newspapers’ ‘industrial age’ printing and delivery systems will decline, but that their ‘information age’ ways of gathering and packaging news can prosper.

    “Mr. Fidler’s vision of the future newspaper is a notebook-size, electronic ‘tablet’ on which a customer could read a daily newspaper continually updated with the latest information, see news videos, hear interviews, consult the newspaper library and order advertisers’ wares.

    “Electronic publishing will make major inroads in a decade, but Mr. Fidler says editors should view the coming ‘mediamorphosis’ not as a threat but as an opportunity to serve readers better.

    “‘Newspapers are in the best position to take advantage of the new technology,’ he says. ‘I don’t think people are that unhappy with the newspaper today. It just isn’t fitting in as well with their lifestyles as it did before.’”

    Changing that “fit” remains our challenge.

  5. Excellent post, John. When I shared this link on Twitter, a couple tweeps asked for more specific suggestions to fix local news. I made some suggestions relating to beats we cover in a blog post: http://stevebuttry.wordpress.com/2012/12/30/what-new-beats-would-help-newsrooms-cover-local-news-better/

    I hope you’ll elaborate with some more suggestions, too. This is one of the most important questions newsroom leaders need to consider and address today.

  6. A problem with much of local news isn’t the content but the structure. We still publish too many inverted pyramid stories about speeches and meetings, and they are often boring.

    I’d suggest trying alternative story forms to cover such events. If done well, these story forms are more eye-catching, informative and memorable.

    • Even better, use the speeches and meetings as a starting point for stories and features about what is actually going on outside the speeches and meetings! Save time by not writing anything about speech or meeting until a day or two later when you’ve done some followup reporting — and then write an article about a single key issue, not all the junk that came up in the meeting. Open these things up to discussion online and really USE the discussion to feel the public’s pulse.

  7. Excellent piece…

    In Winston-Salem some Journalist who have been laid off by the major paper and some free-lancers have come together and we are trying something different. We have plans similar to the suggestions of Mr. Thomas regarding the use of video to gather news. That is a next step in the plan for us, though. We have created and online only, hyper-local news daily called the Camel City Dispatch. We cover the police/crime closely and we cover local government and business. Our numbers are strong (over 10,000 unique viewers in December alone) and we are starting to be able to bring in some ad revenue. As to the comments on style we have also applied what I learned covering national politics and tasked that approach to cover local politics. Instead of simply covering the County Commission, School Board, and City Council meetings to simply create a record we have done in depth pieces that include an investigatory element. We have focused on our school board because it is considered one of the least transparent and worst public bodies in the state. That has led us to stories that are bringing in thousands of local readers because of some of the nonsense and controversial things taking place within our local school and our wider political community.

    We also cover some national and state politics and events, but we try to find a local angle or connection to the story to hook our own narrative to. We’ve been at it for four months now and we have been able to adapt as needs be because we have built flexibility into our business and journalistic model. Yes… this is an experiment and what we feel is a transition phase from old media to new. CCD is kind of our open source laboratory in which to work out some of these issues on the fly… and already if one looks at a couple of larger media outlets and their coverage in town you can see that we have begun to change the way things are covered here in Winston-Salem.

    This conversation and Mr. Robinson’s article are invaluable. The only way to adjust our journalistic settings for the 21st Century is to tinker with them now and pay close attention to outcomes.

  8. I spent nearly 30 years in the newsroom of a small local daily, but left five years ago because I could not stand the self-importance of the newsroom leadership and the condescension it displayed toward the community. This is a big problem for newspapers. Readers want a conversation with the people bringing them the news, but in my experience most reporters and editors seem interested only in talking to each other. In spite of all the focus groups and advisory panels, I believe a lot of print journalists regard their readers as feudal lords regarded their peasants: “They’ll take what they’re given and be grateful for it.”

  9. I’m going to run an experimental class this spring, with one student assigned to each county, where our school districts are counties. Each student will focus on K-12 education in that county, but my idea is for the student-journalists to strive to both uncover what the people in that county care about most (in all matters connected to K-12 education) and to conceive of ways to present information and foster discussions that are — first priority — interesting to people in that county. I’ve already told them I do not want them to produce any stories about meetings — but they will attend public meetings to find out what people are talking about.

    We have the luxury of time, with no daily deadlines. We have the luxury of being able to fail and not pay a price for dead airtime or empty column inches. We have the luxury of having no need to make a profit.

    If you think this sounds like what you’re writing about (as I do), I’d love to hear ideas, even wild and crazy ones. I think one step we need to take is to encourage people who have journalism training (like my students) to break out of the patterns of daily journalism, which often produces very boring and not very valuable reports.

    Thanks for this post, John. I think it’s really spot on, and I’m going to follow what comes next.

    • Ms. McAdams,

      Your Journalism/Education project is fascinating. In the 1980′s I was part of a program as a teenager in Stokes County, NC that was similar except our information gathering was focused on community, local folkways, and history. We have been discussing a way to pull in students and citizen journalist to our little experiment here at Camel City Dispatch. If you don’t mind I would love to speak with you about logistics and how you are organizing your coverage. We focus on K-12 education in a major way so I’d be interested in discussing your approach to that as well. If you would like you can reach me at camelcitydispatchcrew@gmail.com.

      Thank you.

      Chad Nance

  10. Some of the commenters here reference what people want in local news, but I don’t believe anybody has a clue. Not one. Surveys assume much and often present respondents with lists of issues and ask them to rank them. These lists, however, are created by journalists, so we’re really just asking people to feed back to us what we already cover. The more local it gets, the more parochial things get, and this kind of coverage isn’t what’s taught in the schools. That’s all I really know. The issue, moreover, isn’t about coverage; it’s about who will pay for the coverage, and that’s a different matter altogether.

    • That is one of the advantages of being online with no print element. You can directly track what people ARE reading and viewing and put energy into covering those subjects. (for us it has been education) Conversely you can scale back or stop covering what isn’t getting read. The ability to use those kinds of analytics is one of the primary strengths of new, online media.

  11. Pingback: Fix Local News or Die, Part 2 | Media, disrupted

  12. Pingback: Create journalism that matters | Media, disrupted

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