Readers may love newspapers, but newspapers won’t love them back

Updated

Matt DeRienzo pointed out a truth in Ken Doctor’s “10 numbers that define the news business today” that I missed when I read it originally.

We seldom see much reporting of buyouts and layoffs these days, as some publishers concluded that the industry’s problems were only being exacerbated by its reporting on its own staff changes.

This applies to TV stations, too. In fact, they rarely report when they lose staff. Because TV news is so competitive, the last thing a TV anchor will acknowledge is that his or her station doesn’t have the largest newsgathering staff. But I have more experience with papers so….

I had to insist when we laid off journalists that we report it. (I specify journalists because I never seemed to know when people in other departments were laid off until days or weeks after it happened.) It was the one story my publisher insisted he read behind me. To him, publicizing a management decision that would reflect poorly on the business was crazy. I suspect that’s common. “Why tell customers that your business is in trouble?”

Thus, the typical statement from publishers when layoffs are announced: “We are adjusting to the changing media environment. Our coverage of the news and the community will be as strong as ever.”

Perhaps in the first wave of layoffs in 2007-8, this was true. Many newsrooms could absorb one hit. The best used it to focus their vision, move people where they were needed and get a jolt of energy with the new reality.

But after that, the idea that coverage would continue unabated was false, and everyone from publishers to editors to readers know it. More wire stories appear. Fewer enterprise and investigative stories that take are published. Agencies and organizations that used to be covered aren’t. Coverage of the environment, medicine and religion dwindles. More light community-generated content is published to fill pages.

Why does transparency matter?

Newspapers tend to be one of the older institutions in town, and they want to be of the community. Lopping off employees — many of the long-serving journalists — sends community knowledge out the door. Factual errors creep into the paper. Five years ago, the ombudsman at the Washington Post acknowledged the problem. It’s only gotten worse.

More important, readers aren’t stupid. They can tell when the product they are paying for is getting weaker. Every editor in the country should be studying how the Post and Courier in Charleston has responded to the massacre in its midst. The Post and Courier isn’t large, but it gave the community (and nation) outstanding coverage. Its journalists knew what to do and how to do it. The detail on its iconic front page is an example, but the inside the paper coverage isn’t slack, either.

There’s a great deal that is lost when newspapers cut staff. Stories and photos. People’s names and achievements. Detail. Exposure of government incompetence and corruption.

There’s no measure for it, but readers know it when they see it. Not acknowledging it won’t make it go away. But acknowledging it might help you. People rally for products and ideas they like and want to keep. Let your readers know you’re hurting and need help. See what happens: they might rally to help. If they don’t, that might tell you something.

Among journalists it’s said that you can love newspapers, but newspapers won’t love you back. This is also true: Readers can love newspapers, but newspapers won’t love them back. So, turn it on its head. Try something different. Love readers back. Talk honestly with them. Hear what they want and involve them in figuring out how to get it to them.

Think of the possibilities if you decide you’re going to love your readers. They have an open invitation into your house. They are treated with dignity and appreciation when they call, regardless of whether it’s a complaint. They get an announcement of their event published. The correction of the error you made gets prominent play, not buried. Stop messing with the comics and games.

This doesn’t mean you stop with your First Amendment responsibiities or that you back off of shining light into the community’s dark corners. That’s love, too.

The possibilities are endless.

3 thoughts on “Readers may love newspapers, but newspapers won’t love them back

  1. I used to judge newspaper contests with some regularity. The very best newspapers weren’t necessarily the biggest — in fact, it was often the smallest weeklies that kept my attention. The reason was that you could tell the ones that loved the communities they covered. And I don’t mean loved them in a rah-rah cheerleading sort of way, but loved them sincerely enough to extol the great things, and to pound the drum over the not-so-great things, in the hope of making them better. (Great example, or at least it was: The Ellsworth American in Ellsworth, Maine.)

    Part, but not all, of the problem lies in the post-Watergate journalists’ cynical default to gotcha journalism. Exposing skulduggery is critical to a functioning democracy, but it can’t be all a journalist does, and it can’t be all a journalist looks for in a story. We need to stop with the cynicism; no wonder readers hate us.

    Another part of the problem lies in many journalists’ perceived career path: Stay at the podunk smaller paper for as short a time as possible, and get to a bigger paper where you can do Real Journalism. Smaller papers, for this and other reasons (most notably the dismal compensation levels they offer), have trouble retaining journalists for more than about 18 months, which means any institutional memory of a community regularly walks out the door. That is really hard on readers, who have to educate a new crop way too often.

    There isn’t one easy solution to this problem, but I recall what one local weekly publisher finally decided to do. He knew he wouldn’t be keeping most of his reporting staff for the long term, so he decided to become the best training ground in the region for new journalists. He made a big commitment to career development, even on a small budget. And three things happened: He kept his reporters about six months longer than he had been able to in the past; and he developed excellent relationships with larger papers in the area, who knew when he called to say he had a reporter who was ready to move on, he was helping a well-trained journalist take the next career step. And this in turn earned him a reputation as the go-to place for beginning journalists to work, so he was able to be more discriminating in his hiring. And, naturally, the coverage of his community got better.

    So, yeah, what you said: The best papers are filled with journalists who love the communities they serve.

    • Elaine,

      I agree with a lot of what you’re saying, and on the ‘gotcha journalism’ side of things, I would add that sometimes our investigations are so wonkish and policy focused that the bulk of our readers feel that they have zero connection to their lives. TV may do the ‘news you can use’ type of story to death, but if our readers cannot relate to our investigations, they will have no impact.

      With respect to journalists wanting to leave a podunk newspaper as quickly as possible, I probably am guilty as charged. I spent a handful of years in local markets before moving to national and international journalism, and I can say that most of my motivation wasn’t about wanting to get out of small markets as quickly as possible but to try to find a way to eke out a living and do what I loved. (I’m back in local journalism because as a local news executive, I can live a lot better quality of life on a much smaller wage where I’m at than in New York, London or Washington, DC.)

      I know reporters five years into their career who have to rely on Medicaid as they are having their first child. (His wife could make more as a manager at Hobby Lobby.) Being a cub reporter at a local newspaper has always been pretty hard going financially. My first job I made two grand less than a first year teacher. But we’ll always see young talent run as quickly as they can if local journalism means poverty wages.

      We get a lot of incredible young talent because they believe in the mission. We always have, but community journalism will always suffer if we can’t pay to retain that talent.

  2. I’m a longtime newspaper writer who has long lamented our industry’s hypocrisy. We expect complete transparency from others, but go into spin mode when reporting on ourselves.
    I wrote a play about our industry, called “Fishwrap,” that pulls no punches about the good and bad of small-town newspapers. Many who saw it told me they subscribed to their local newspaper afterward.

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