How can newspapers cover elections to serve readers better?

On Saturday, I referred to a survey that I thought would send chills down the spines of journalists, but really shouldn’t. Today, the Elon University Poll reports one that should send chills down the spines of newspaper journalists, but probably won’t. (Full disclosure: I’m the director of communications for the poll.)

The poll reports that North Carolinians, when asked where they get most of their news about the May 8 primary, responded 42% television, 24% the Internet, 11% newspapers, 10% radio and 7% talking to people.

I single out newspapers because they devote a great deal of energy covering the elections, more than the other news sources. Oh, you can see a great deal of presidential coverage on television and the Internet, and that’s great. It covers one of the dozen or so issues on the ballot. But governor? Lieutenant governor? Congress? School board? Board of County Commissioners? State Senate? If you’re going to be informed about those, it’s likely going to be from information published in the local newspaper.

And about as many people get election information from the radio as from newspapers? OK, I implore television to devote more attention to the local elections than to crime and inconsequential stories that they air because they have video. But they won’t. So, let’s move on.

It may be time for newspaper editors to question some of their traditional principles.

* If only one in 10 people rely on the newspaper for election information, should editors devote their efforts to covering other issues more important to their readers?

* If the primary purpose of journalism is “to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society,” is there another way newspapers can cover elections that is more helpful to their readers?

* This is counter-intuitive to those who still consider television news competitiion — here’s a secret: TV has won — but is there an opportunity to partner with television to take the information that citizens need (elections) where they are gathering (television)?

* 24% of respondents cited the Internet as their No. 1 source. Presumably that includes some newspaper websites. Presumably the percentage will climb in the future. Doesn’t this suggest that newspapers should provide citizens with deep, detailed election information online?

There are ways to discount the poll response. People were only talking about the presidential race. If asked about the other races, they’d say newspaper. When people were thinking of Internet sites, they were really thinking of newspaper internet sites. These are probably true of some of the respondents.

One thing’s for sure: Changing nothing is the wrong response.

When news is not news

The statistic’s even starker for certain age groups: 31 percent of people ages 18-24 get no news on an average day, and 22 percent of 30-34-year-olds get none either.

Nearly one in three people 18-24 years old get no news? That’s a factoid that sends shivers down not only the spines of journalists but also anyone who cares about civic life.

That quote in italics is from Poynter’s report on a slideshow prepared by Lee Rainie of Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. (It isn’t on the Pew site, and it’s dangerous to draw conclusions from slide from a survey with no attached methodology, but here we go.)

My first thought was that it is just deserts for a news media that identifies the top story of the morning a woman who doesn’t have monkeypox, as the news channels did yesterday. (Hey, I don’t have monkeypox either! Put me on TV!) Or the second big story of the day, a missing child in Tucson. Neither story makes a difference in the lives of more than a few hundred people. These are the empty calories that the national networks call news. A man catches a baseball at a game and doesn’t give it to the crying three-year-old next to him? The 18-24 year-old age group isn’t stupid. They see this stuff and know it’s not news to them.

We’ve turned the definition of news into mush. That said, I don’t believe the statistic.

The 18-24 year-old age group is the “if-the-news-is-that-important-it-will-find-me” generation. Those folks are on Facebook. They get news every time they log on. Their friends tell them the news in their worlds. (And for you not on Facebook, don’t think that they talk about what they had for breakfast.) Ths generation doesn’t immediately call it news the way we old-timers do, but when they watch, say, the president slow jammin’ the news, it is news. When they see the “Trending Articles” foisted upon them by Facebook, that’s news. (Well, some of them are.)

But if you ask them where they get news, the answer is Google and Yahoo and Jon Stewart and Huffington Post. It’s rarely actual, traditional, mainstream news organizations. The news may originate there, but they don’t identify those as the sources. And that’s one of the problems with using the generic term “news” in a survey.

I teach a class of 33 people in that age group. Because they are in college, perhaps they aren’t typical. (For the record, 68% of high school graduates last year went to college.) They are informed. They know what is happening in the world. Many of them say they get their news from friends. Ask them the news source, they say Facebook. But do they call Kony 2012 or Laurelynn Dossett and Friends singing about opposition to Amendment One news? No. But that’s what I call it.

News is being redefined — by news organizations that sensationalize and pander. By aggregation that blurs the original source of information. By a public that has lost trust in traditional news organizations. That’s not bad necessarily, but it is important that we understand what’s going on when we talk about things like this. And to say that nearly a third of the population between 18-24 get no news on any given day? Unbelievable.

Five things to do when looking for a newspaper job

After reading Malcolm Gladwell’s paean to newspapers, a student asked me advice on picking the right newspaper at which to work. I didn’t go Gladwell’s route. I like newspapers and think that they are an excellent place for rookie journalists to get the training and discipline they need.

Here’s a smarter version of what I said.

1. Find out what papers laid off people in the past three years. Then read up on what the chief executives, publishers and editors said about the layoffs. If their message was along the lines of “News coverage won’t be hurt,” cross those papers off your list. The leaders are either out of touch with the news department or they are blowing smoke to their readers. They can’t be trusted.

2. Find out which chief executives got big bonuses, severances and/or retirement packages while their properties had laid off people. That tells you a lot about the character of the leadership. Avoid them. (I would make an exception of the New York Times because, despite its issues, it’s still the best paper in the country.)

3. Check out the website. Is it easy to navigate? Does it seem to be community-based, rather than newspaper-based? Does it have a good mobile app? Does it have more content than what was in the morning paper? Are there community voices? If the paper lags here, then you have to doubt its commitment to the future. While a newspaper company’s main revenue source is the paper itself, digital is the future. The smart papers are preparing for the future and investing profit into exploring and developing its digital future.

4. Does the paper have a presence on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest? Is it active and engaging or does it just shovel content? Is there a staff presence that’s easy to find? Is the paper’s leadership there? If the answers are no — or the answers aren’t easy to determine — beware. The paper is either timid about social media, doesn’t understand how it works or isn’t committed to being where people are gathering.

5. Last — not first — look at the printed edition. Are the stories interesting? Are the photos and design well-done? Are they well-edited? Is there a sense of enterprise and risk-taking? Good ideas, good reporting and good editing will give you an excellent sense of what you can learn at the paper.

Not all newspapers are “dreary, depressed places.” The ones that are looking forward and taking care of their people are as lively and interesting as newspapers ever are. (Bear in mind that I was in the business for nearly 40 years — and never did I hear someone say, “Man, morale is so good in the newsroom!” I did hear a lot of people say, “This is one helluva good story.”)

Winning the readers with news and losing them with advertising

Two surveys:

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, we rely on local newspapers for information about our community. Nearly three quarters (72%) of adults are quite attached to following local news and information, and local newspapers are by far the source they rely on for much of the local information they need.

Excellent. I love it.

Here’s the but: According to Nielsen’s Global Trust in Advertising Survey, we don’t have a lot of trust in the advertising that supports the news. …While 92% of consumers say they trust word-of-mouth recommendations, less than half trust paid ads in traditional media outlets. The trust in these ads has declined by more than 20% since 2009.

Where does that leave us? Same place we’ve been for a while. Except worse. Even as the public’s confidence in newspapers (and TV) is in the 20% to 30% range, advertisers, by and large, have stayed with them through the past five years of unpleasantness. That’s even though the amount of time people spend with print has plunged. So, if people’s trust in paid ads are now declining? Gulp.

There are possibilities. Alan Mutter recently outlined four. The first step to getting serious about digital publishing is to develop a strategic commitment to building relevant and remunerative products. Because most profit-pinched newspapers lack the time, money and in-house talent to develop such products, it makes sense for the industry to pool its resources to create a Digital Widget Works to build products to compete with the upstarts.

The time to act is now. The contest will only get more intense, with Groupon, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Yelp and a host of wannabes feasting on fresh capital faster than you can spell IPO.

Ken Doctor also has a bunch of ideas: What kinds of skills, knowledge and abilities do you have in your company, assets that can be used newly and differently? What kind of job needs to be one by someone who has the budget and has no go-to supplier…yet?

And there is the Nieman Lab.

Here’s the present and the future: Ask the students in my mass communication class where they get their news and they say Facebook, Twitter and “people I know.”

Filling the investigative gap

Last week, I wrote about the high cost of journalism and acknowledged that I let the News & Record’s investigative effort slide so that we could have broader coverage of more traditional news.

Andria Krewson writes about non-traditional news organizations in N.C. filling the gap, in many cases ably, in others, well, less so.

Some sources are relatively new, part of a crop of independent, nonprofit news outlets sprouting in many states. Others are long established, serving policy-oriented parent organizations that have a clear political ideology, even if they are technically nonpartisan.

Whatever their pedigree, the nonprofits are sometimes hard to find for readers outside of political wonk circles. But as a group, they’re providing more information about politics and the money behind it, particularly for state elections and issues—an area where the number of newspaper reporters has sharply declined both in North Carolina and across the country.

Because it’s Andria, it’s filled with links and detail. Give it a read, bookmark the links and I guarantee you’ll be a smarter political citizen.


Here’s the app. Where’s the money?

When I was a newspaper editor pushing to get some traction to develop a mobile app, one of the issues that stymied the business types was, to quote, “What’s the ROI?” Because I was a journalist, it came out as, “It costs money. How are we going to make money?”

I would talk about future customers and going to where the people are. They would respond, quite rightly, by thinking of the present: “Where’s the money?”

Nielsen lines up with them: Taking just the use of paid content on tablets in Q4 2011, Nielsen found that in the U.S., a majority of tablet owners have already paid for downloaded music, books and movies, with 62 percent, 58 percent and 51 percent respectively saying they have already made such purchases. The one area that really fell down in the U.S. was news, where only 19 percent said they had ever paid to read news on their tablets.

Related, Ad Age reports that  Conde Nast is making progress with advertisers on its iPad app. The growing body of overall information on tablet readership is reinforcing some early impressions that are promising for magazines on tablets, according to Conde Nast.

Readers typically swipe through tablet editions from front to back, for example, the same way they work their way through print editions. They browse — taking in ads as they go — instead of jumping directly to specific articles the way web surfers do.

“Consumer behavior with digital editions of magazines is very much like their behavior with print editions of magazines, and very much unlike their behavior with websites,” Mr. McDonald said.

Digital-edition readers are also still younger but more affluent than magazines’ print readers, Conde Nast said, although the disparity has narrowed as tablet ownership has grown and Amazon and Barnes & Noble have introduced devices that are cheaper than the iPad.

Meanwhile, my former paper has a new, free app. I like it.

Going mobile

Nearly half (46%) of American adults are smartphone owners as of February 2012, an increase of 11 percentage points over the 35% of Americans who owned a smartphone last May.

So reports the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Is there a stronger argument for news media companies to have the very best mobile platforms?


Listening to the customers rather than the past

When I wrote this, I didn’t know that John Paton was saying this:

In 2012, in the US, it is expected there will be more advertising on the web than in newspapers and by most estimates more Americans now access their news via the web than print.

The customers have spoken.

But are we listening?

And this:

If you want investors to take a long-term view on our industry or our companies then you better give them a long-term plan that works. Give them a plan they will back.

And I would add it should be a plan built on the editorial floor where the core of our business lies.

He gave a speech last week to the Canadian Journalism Foundation about the challenges and solutions facing newspapers. He spoke directly and bluntly — and truthfully, I think — to his peers in the business — publishers, owners, news execs.

Read the whole thing.

Has your newspaper improved in the past 10 years?

The question from one of Andy Bechtel‘s students in his Advanced Editing class at UNC stopped me.

“Are there any newspapers that have improved in the past 10 years?”

It’s a question that should be posed to newspaper managers across the country. I doubt many would honestly answer that their newspaper is better today than in 2002 or even 2007. Years of layoffs and page reduction have taken such a toll that only a few papers might venture to say they have improved.

It would take some courage — and I believe newspaper managers have courage — to ask their readers the same question. Yet, some newspapers don’t tell their readers of layoffs. Many that do are accompanied by a statement such as this one: “We will maintain and over time enhance the quality of our newspaper.”

Well. OK.

On Planet Earth, the fact is that newspapers aren’t better. Their websites may be. Their newsrooms are certainly more focused on delivering the news that readers want. But with reduced staff and less space, they simply can’t provide the news coverage, the delivery range or the customer service they used to.

So, now what?

First, when you’re in a hole, stop digging. Forget about 10 years ago. Determine the new normal. Decide what size staff you’re going to have and stick with it for longer than the next quarterly report. The readers you have now have stayed with you through the hard times. They aren’t going to leave you. Move forward from now. If you stop changing it and cutting it, readers will get used to it and appreciate it for what it is.

Second, make the smart play — invest in digital. That’s where the people are. If you want them to see you, you have to be where they are. Then you have to have content that they want to see. Every local audience is different so you’ll have to figure that out, but I don’t think they want to see the content that is in the morning paper. They want new stuff created for them…and the web or their phone. You have to be smart, web-centric, quick-moving and open to change. You need a voice. And you need a good CMS.

Third, don’t “fix it,” slap your hands together and think, “well, that’s done.” This is your future. The UNC student’s question should haunt you. Ask yourself and your fellow newsroom managers this: “What have we done to improve our digital report in the last 10 days?”

The Dow Jones is near 13,000. Take some of those profits and funnel them into the digital operation. You won’t regret it.