Restoring a sense of community ownership in the local paper

Two days ago, I wrote about how “our newspaper” became “the newspaper.” I ended the post with a copout: “Newspapers — new organizations, actually – can take many steps to make people feel a sense of ownership and partnership in their journalism. Some are already doing it. But that’s another post.”

Many commenters left suggestions. Here are some more:

* Figure out what jobs people need to have done. That came from the 2005 Newspaper Next project. Both Steve Buttry and Justin Ellis evaluated the success of that project this past fall. (Answer: Not all that successful.) OK, the problems still remain and answers are still out there. Revisit it. What does the community need? Too often news organizations are focused on what they want to give the community. That’s a notion rooted in the boomtimes when newspapers dominated their markets. Now circulation and revenue trends indicate that the community doesn’t need what papers are doing.

* Develop an engaging, constructive social media voice. Ideally, the top editor would be on Facebook and Twitter talking with people in the community — really talking, not just posting links to the paper’s website. She would seek out everyone who lives in the circulation area and invite them to join in. (A lot of people would be flattered when the editor invites them into her circle.) She would be active and attentive. Best of all, she would have a personality that suggests she wants to help, to listen, to improve things.

* Forbid all anonymous online comments. Most people want to live and visit in communities in which real names are used.

* Release obits and wedding announcements from paid advertising. They should be free. They do one of the things newspapers say they want to do — track the passages of the community. You want people to say, “Hey, I saw in the paper that Sheila is getting married.” I know how much money obits bring in. (Weddings don’t bring in that much because so few people are using papers to announce them.) The elimination of one page of newsprint each day would cover the lost revenue. And I would eliminate one of the pages devoted to national/world wire copy. (While I’m at it, pay the person who takes obits to ensure that he knows how to spell, how to follow style and where the local landmarks are. His primary goal should be to make sure every single obit is perfect.)

* Hire someone to answer the phone. In my old job, I heard from readers and advertisers who couldn’t get a real person to answer the phone and who reached deadends in phone trees. Imagine the dividends in having someone answer the phone who cared about getting you help. I know the cost of a phone operator, too. I promise media companies can afford it.

* Unleash editorial pages to kick ass and take names. The institutional newspaper editorial voice is often like reading a textbook. I want people to talk about the editorial in the morning paper. Let them hate it — that’s ok. The readers you care about will respect you for saying it.

* Tell the truth in political reporting. This seems obvious but it is increasingly hard to do.  Government reporters know who the crackpots are and what the crackpot ideas are. But they err on the side of “objectivity” and don’t describe them as crackpot. Or unlikely. Or contradictory to something said by the same person in the past. Readers deserve the truth about Ron Paul’s past comments, Rick Perry’s term as Texas governor, and Mitt Romney’s record at Bain. At this point it seems as if reporters are only covering talking points and gotcha moments. That tends to make everyone but political partisans sick of it.

* Create content the community needs and that people care about. It is community news that many of us know as “chicken-dinner news.” It is strong watchdog reporting that takes on issues of wasted tax money, fraud in government or an injustice involving the little guy. If your own staff doesn’t read the paper every day — and I assure you that many of them don’t — you need to get a clue that your content isn’t relevant enough.

These are just a beginning. I know you can come up with many more, and I encourage you to do so either in the comments and/or at your own workplace.

These won’t bring back the times when “everyone” subscribed to the paper. But they will restore some people’s trust in the paper. Will it translate into dollars and cents? I don’t know. But journalists should embrace the idea of trust between them and readers. That’s the only thing we have going for us.

(P.S. I know some of my former staff are saying, “Where the hell has this guy been.” I apologize for that. It’s amazing the clarity of purpose that comes with having time to think about things.)

A death in the family: How “our newspaper” became “the newspaper”

We like it when you refer to the News & Record as “our newspaper.” We want the paper to represent you and reflect your values.

That was how I started a column back in 2009. But in my mind, I knew I was speaking to a lost generation. The idea of “our newspaper” — suggesting a sense of ownership, a partnership, endearment even — is mostly a relic. Oh, in the days of “Yes, Virginia” and the New York Sun — “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” — the local newspaper was a part of the family. In fact, the News & Record still gets letters referring to “my newspaper” and “our newspaper.” But now, more often, the personal pronoun is replaced with the article “the.” (And occasionally followed by “the” and an expletive.)

Yesterday, when I wrote of my continued personal connection with the newspaper, Jay Rosen suggested my next post: on: “Now if we could only figure out when (for the readers) “our newspaper” became “the” newspaper… When and how… Exactly how.”

It would be easy to say that the sense of community of Facebook and Twitter has displaced that of the daily newspaper, but the erosion of the paper’s stranglehold on “our” began long before that. It began with television news in the 60s and 70s. Newscasters were “real,” cute, and seemed nice and friendly. They chatted with you and their colleagues. You felt you knew them in the same way that you just know that, say, Sandra Bullock or Reese Witherspoon are nice based on their movie roles. People started having choices of where, how and when they got their news. They began abandoning their papers.

And newspapers began abandoning them. In the 80s, afternoon newspapers began dying. The sense of allegiance to the afternoon paper didn’t transfer to the morning paper. When the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to L.A., did Dodger fans become Yankee fans? Not on your life. Where there was competition, there was now consolidation. Fewer papers were owned by someone who lived in town. Editors and publishers came from corporate. Reporters came from out of town.

The erosion continued.

It wasn’t all external forces. Newspapers hurt themselves. They began charging for obituaries. (The paper wants to make money from a death in my family? Who does that? Not a friend) Newspapers developed attitude. Snark was in; folksy was out. People called to do business with the paper and heard this: “Your call is very important to us. Please hold for the next customer service representative.” That’s not how you talk to family.

And even though circulation penetration was slipping, profits were higher than ever.  Newspapers got arrogant and couldn’t see or wouldn’t see what was going on around them. What, me worry?

Society became more transient. Fewer adults lived in the communities in which they were reared, and they didn’t have the same link with the local newspaper. Tie that in with the “bowling alone” phenomenon, and community connections were severing everywhere. At about the same time, the nation began dividing itself into Tim Russert’s red states and blue states. People became alienated by newspapers with strong editorial stances — liberal or conservative. (It wasn’t helped by FoxNews’ constant refrain that newspapers were liberally biased.) For instance, the News & Record’s editorial board tends to support Democrats. Voters in the city of Greensboro do, too. But outside of Greensboro, where the newspaper has sizable circulation, the populace is much more conservative. People were bound to feel as if the paper wasn’t theirs, wasn’t “of” them and certainly wasn’t “for” them. I believe that’s true of most newspapers that circulate in a large area. (I know it is of the four largest papers in North Carolina.)

Meanwhile, journalists, having helped take down a president, rediscovered their investigative gene, which was good and proper. Unfortunately, in many cases, the emphasis on watchdog journalism displaced the community content. Neighborhood  news — that feel-good steak-and-potatoes meal that newspapers lived on for much of their history — became the equivalent of brussels sprouts, relegated to inside pages and special zoned sections. Papers wrote about bad government, but weren’t telling me what my neighbors were doing or who had been promoted or what the house down the street sold for.

The internet sealed the deal. More choices of information, of connection and of community. It became “our newspaper.” My Facebook friends and Twitter followers are communities that feel as strong as my physical community. They are friends and they’re fun, and their engagement is safe. Compare comments on Facebook with those on the typical newspaper site.

Fifteen years ago, the News & Record hired a consultant to test people’s emotional response to the newspaper. He came back with this conclusion: The plurality of your readers is that they “love to hate you.” We were aghast. We tried a number of strategies to change that feeling. I don’t know that any worked — we never had the consultant back — but I doubt they did. The clock was not to be turned back.

But that’s OK. No sense in mourning something something that’s history anyway. Newspapers — new organizations, actually — can take many steps to make people feel a sense of ownership and partnership in their journalism. Some are already doing it. But that’s another post.

Tuesday update: Jack Lail joins in at his blog in Knoxville.

The future of cable TV

If you are interested in the media and interested in the future — and you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t — then you really must read the series the Nieman Lab is doing on expectations for 2012.

So far, my favorite is by Rex Sorgatz and it won’t make my friends at Time Warner very happy. Wait, I don’t have any friends at Time Warner. Perfect!

Right now, I pay over $200 per month to have 1,600 TV channels pumped into my apartment. How many of those channels do I watch? A dozen, max.

This is clearly broken. Really broken. Stupid broken.

And we all know this has to end, somehow. And we all know it will end, somehow. But no one knows quite how. Maybe it will be fixed by Apple, maybe Hulu, maybe Netflix, maybe Google; probably, by something we haven’t even seen yet. But I think we can all agree that this broken system is going to be fixed, somehow.

And when that happens, the fallout for the LA-based television industry will be catastrophic. It will make the print media collapse of the past decade look like Legos.

I don’t know anyone who is happy with their cable service. Happy that they get channel choices, but not happy that they have to pay so much for what they don’t want and don’t use. (Yes, I know it sounds like newspapers. And you’ve seen what’s happening there.)

Anyway, Sorgatz goes on to describe the upshot of that collapse — a renaissance of creative programming. Read the whole thing. And then get ahead of the curve by reading the others. Most describe a rocky but bright future for journalism.