Fix Local News or Die, Part 2

So, I wrote this post a few days ago that argued that one possible avenue of success for newspapers is to stop being so damned boring. Then I went off on a New Year’s Eve/Day vacation without a laptop, and all hell broke loose. Steve Buttry, Guy Lucas, Jack Lail and Jennifer Connic all weighed in on how newspapers should fix local news. Good.

I understand the frustration people felt when I didn’t offer solutions. My mistake. I have written a great deal about what I thought newsrooms could and should do to extend the lifespan of their publications. I should have linked back to them.

Ultimately, here is where I stand: Newspapers once proudly said they were like a supermarket — they offered aisles upon aisles of choices. Readers could page through the paper and read whatever they choose. Want news out of Washington? It’s there. News from Libya? Check the international news section. Games and puzzles? Yep. Newspapers large and small portrayed themselves as the paper of record for their communities. The idea was that if it happened and was important, it would be in the paper.

Now, most papers can no longer pretend to be the paper of record, thanks to layoffs and newsprint cutbacks. Yet newsrooms tend to operate as if they still are. Stop it. Rather than a grocery store, the paper should be more like one of those specialty shops with fewer choices but only the finest items that you’re not going to find elsewhere. But maybe that’s just what I want. You’ll need to determine what sort of paper you’ll be.

How? The first step starts at the top. No, not the editor. The real boss. People. Talk with people in the community. They’re the ones who you are trying to serve. Don’t survey them. We have enough surveys. Talk to them about what they need and how you can serve them. When was the last time you — a newsroom journalist — asked someone what you could do for them? Not a source. Not a relative. But a regular person who might or might not bother to read your prose. If you haven’t, how will you know if what you’re doing is what is helping them? (As I said previously, if your circulation has been dropping for the past five or six years, whatever you’re doing now isn’t working too well.)

So, talk with them. Dig down. Listen actively. They’ll tell you what they want in their newspaper. Consider what they say and make it happen. You may not be able to do it all, but you can do some of it. My guess is that they will tell you that they heard much of what the morning paper has on television the night before. So, either avoid TV stories or brief them. Do original reporting instead. Use the wires more wisely. How many people led with the fiscal cliff this morning when it was all over morning television before the paper was even delivered. Did you run wires or did you provide any extra value?

But I digress. When you’re battling for the attention of people who have many choices — most of which cost nothing —  you have to give them something that is indispensable, that is so valuable to them that they will pay money for it. Can you say that you’re providing that with every story you write?

The second step is that the editor must determine what kind of publication he or she wants and communicate it clearly and consistently. If the editor’s vision hasn’t adopted to the new reality of a smaller staff, smaller newshole, smaller readership and an abundance of competition, then you might want to raise your hand and say, “what the hell?” Or something like that. The vision should cascade down as editors and reporters figure out the strategy and tactics and measures. I know those business terms frighten some journalists, but without them, people get confused and there is no accountability and no change.

Personally, I argue for quality over quantity. Consider this: If you’re a reporter, how many times have you written a story not because it was a great story but because you covered the event so you might as well write it? How many times did you come back to the office, tell the editor that the story wasn’t worth much and he or she told you to write it anyway. Now, imagine if the standard was such that you didn’t waste time or space on a story that didn’t fit snugly into the editor’s vision? Would your reporting be smarter? I think so. Would there be fewer local bylines in the paper? Maybe. But the stories would be better, or should be. I want to pay for quality.

I am reluctant to go into as much detail as Steve. One size won’t fit all. Every  community is different with different information needs. That’s why it’s vital that journalists devote so much time talking with people about those needs. He polled his readers about beats. I’m thinking that beats are one of the problems with the modern day newsroom. The best beat reporters always have a list of stories to write…and as beat reporters bond with their beats, they are loyal to those stories. Often, those stories aren’t nearly as interesting to readers. I haven’t figured out how restructure the beat system so that, well, it’s no longer a beat system. But I’m thinking about it.

One comment about the original post was something to the effect of “how do I cover City Hall in a fresh way?” My answer goes back to the most important questions you should ask every day. What do people need from City Hall? How can I help them?

I’m likely not providing the answers most of you want. That’s because I don’t have them. The people in your coverage area do, though. Ask them.

11 thoughts on “Fix Local News or Die, Part 2

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  3. Thanks for continuing this conversation, John. You’re absolutely right that the answers will vary by community and that editors and staff members need to talk to people in the community to understand how to best cover the community. I love your points about quality over quantity. As newsroom staffs have been cut, we need to decide what to stop doing and what to do differently.

    If you figure out what to do with the beat system, I look forward to reading that post(s). I think we need the expertise that comes with beats, but you are right that sometimes beat reporters lose track of what’s most important or interesting to readers.

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  5. I think you are partially right. This is simply my opinion and i feel that talking to the community is the first step. But what I feel is crucial for a reporter is to listen to what people say and then figure out what it is the Commmunity needs. In other words, people may tell you stories about this and that but it’s the reporter’s duty to go out and find the 5 Ws and H for the reader. This is where being out in the community daily and just watching how the community behaves comes into play. Don’t ask for the answers. Be the answer. Be like a doctor. The patient gives the symptoms and the doctor figures out the best way to solve those symptoms. Be inquisitive. Be a detective and find what the readers need without having them spell it out for you because many times the reader can give you an avalanche of information but no real focus point. You as a reporter have to sift through and distill the clues that will lead you to the best stories you will write. This is where all the skills you learned in college and from veteran journalists come into play. Go out into the community and sit and watch. There’s a lot to learn from just observing what’s going on around you. Then apply that knowledge for solutions to what the community may not even know they need. Be a leader, a creator of solutions and stories and not one that simply looks to go from point A (your readers) to point B (a story parroting what your readers told you). Writing stories should be a task like a numbers puzzles where you don’t know what the dots make up separately but when you connect them, a surprising image appears.

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  8. I really enjoy reading this conversation and I recognize that many of the people commenting here and in John’s previous post on the topic are smarter than me and have thought more deeply about the issue. But, If I can venture one line of thought:

    As I read the posts and comments, I often – not always, but often – feel that the underlying context turns the conversation not to “How to fix local news” but “How to fix the local daily newspaper,” which are not necessarily the same thing.

    Spoken I’m sure, like the editor of a niche publication that I am, but I’m not necessarily touting niches as the be-all and end-all. But I would offer that their success over the past decade or two is at least a reminder that while you rethink the news model it can’t be divorced from rethinking the business model.

    It seems to me that it’s hard to truly change the news model if part of the “given” is that you are simultaneously trying to preserve the old daily paper structure in every town, including the economics – with the big building on Main Street, the attached printing press, fleet of delivery trucks, big (albeit shrinking) staffs and large, but general, target market.

    • Absolutely agree.

      My interest, of course, is the journalism. And my belief is that people are leaving the newspaper behind because it doesn’t deliver the necessary value.

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