Learning from obituaries

Ann McIver passed away on Tuesday. Her obituary takes up nearly a column in today’s News & Record.

Bettye McKee died on Monday. Her obituary is almost as long.

I’ve lived in Greensboro for 27 years, and I have never heard of either woman. That troubles me because the paper — for many years under my watch — should have written about them. Perhaps it did write in the years before I moved to Greensboro in 1985. I hope so. McIver was president of the Junior League and was active in helping the city understand the importance of the civil rights movement. McKee was a teacher, most recently at Allen Jay Middle.

Still, it is not just these two women or just today. Almost every day the News & Record — and presumably every newspaper — has obituaries of people that their families think enough of to spend the money to write inches and inches of tribute. They are people who made a mark on the world and this community in their own special way. They have stories. They should be in the paper before their obituaries.

Many newspapers are realizing the importance of more intensely local content. But with staffs being cut, there are fewer opportunities to get the stories of interesting people before the eyes of readers. It is an opportunity that I wish I had seized when I had the power to make it happen. It’s still an opportunity for papers.

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.)

So many obituaries

In these days right after Christmas, the obituary page is the saddest page of the paper. I think of the families who are mourning a death on Christmas.

The News & Record published 52 obituaries today, taking up nearly four pages in the paper. (The usual is less that two pages.) I don’t know the record number, but I bet 52 competes. Many of the people listed died on Christmas. The paper published 43 obits yesterday and 20 on Dec. 26.

That trend isn’t unusual.

The Charlotte Observer published 98 obits today, 82 yesterday and 32 on Dec. 26.

The News & Observer published 70 obits today, 82 yesterday and 38 on Dec. 26.

The Winston-Salem Journal published 29 obits today, 37 yesterday and 17 on Dec. 26.

There are too many variables for me to attach too much significance to the numbers. The emotional toll on the scores of families simply overwhelmed me when I read the morning paper.