Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Making local news relevant again

Amid all the talk of pay walls, the decline of newspapers, and what the industry needs to do to save itself, many seem to overlook the idea of media relevance. They may give the idea lip service in the greater discussion of rebuilding revenues, but it seems to me that such discussions miss the point.

Granted, revenue losses have crippled the industry and continue to be the focal point and the reason that so many, like me, have lost careers they loved, callings they may never be able to respond to again.

I do not need to rehash the reasons for that decline in this post; I have written about my perspective on this before — in these posts, among others:
But the desperation for revenue is intense, and it is understandable that recapturing those lost dollars has become the priority. Indeed, it is a driving factor in newspapers launching pay walls, even though early attempts to charge users for access to news websites largely failed; newspapers then abandoned the idea. Pay walls are the equivalent of subscriptions to an online service, and over the past seven months or so, there has been an avalanche of newspapers implementing pay walls in a desperate bid for financial redemption.

But there are industry experts who argue against them. Some, like John Paton at Digital First, have focused on other alternatives and are proving there are business models out there on which content providers may be able to thrive.

Myself? I do not believe pay walls will be the panacea some seek, and generally, I oppose the idea as an obstacle to users. As an editor, one of my many responsibilities was to remove or fix those things that readers were likely to stumble over — misspelled words, poor grammar or punctuation, poor sentence construction. The idea was to make each sentence and paragraph as clear and as readable as possible while applying the basic rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation. The simpler and more concise the story structure — assuming the story was compelling to begin with — the more likely the reader would be to stick with and not abandon it.

Internet use is similar. The expression surfing the ’Net” arose from the ability of Internet users to seamlessly and fluidly move at will from website to website. Throwing in a pay wall, or tollbooth, if you will, interrupts that free-flowing movement. It is the equivalent of installing speed bumps, but on the information superhighway rather than in a parking lot.

Instead, I believe newspapers — they’re being called content providers these days — need to return to their roots and begin providing what they’ve largely abandoned over the past 30 or 40 years.

When newspapers were family- or locally owned organizations, they had a community presence — and often a continuity of leadership — that their corporate successors failed miserably at providing. Local or family ownership often reflects pride in the product, in the quality of the journalism.

Family operations also looked further into the future than the next quarter’s bottom line, in stark contrast to the lack of foresight for which corporations are known. No, a family-run shop often looked to the next decade and beyond, hoping to preserve a legacy of growth and profitability for the next generation.

There was a richer relational aspect to the family-run or locally owned newspaper, I think, than has been offered by today’s corporate owners. There are many levels to that, but a family that is rooted in the community has more at stake than a corporation whose ownership is scattered across the country and among diverse investors looking more for an immediate return on their buck than a lasting legacy in the community in which they conduct business.

Certainly there are corporate exceptions, and certainly there are advantages to corporate ownership of local papers. The past three decades, however, as well as the economic downtown in 2007-08 certainly cast a harsh spotlight on corporate weaknesses in this regard.

What I have been pointing to are aspects of relevance that corporations largely have failed to grasp. I also have strong doubts that absentee owners are capable of adequately assessing the needs of the communities they serve. Generally speaking, from what I’ve seen personally and have read about over the years is that corporations too often take a one-size-fits-all approach for the sake of expediency and efficiency. Perhaps that approach works in some larger markets, but it may cause stumbling in smaller markets.

For example, some newspapers now are publishing press releases nearly verbatim, with little or no editing and without considering the ramifications of allowing organizations to publish their own “spin” via press release in a publication that at one time represented such journalistic standards as impartiality. Those press releases reflect poorly on the publication and its professionals.

Another element also is relational. Steve Buttry, in his blog The Buttry Diary, devotes many posts to the use of social media by journalists to build community engagement. He is writing about the heart of relationship between a news provider and its readers — communicating both in terms of leading discussions and listening/responding to the community.

Newspapers once were considered leaders in community discussion, offering their editorial pages as a forum on issues, where the papers themselves took stands on issues.

Further, reporters and editors were expected to know their communities. A journalist was just as likely to pick up a news tip while in the local coffee shop as he/she was to pick one up at city hall or while answering the phone at his/her desk. Perhaps a part of that was that journalists lived in the communities in which they worked.

But social media — Google+, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, among many more — offer an opportunity to build and converse with a larger portion of the community than ever before. Those conversations can guide local news coverage better than the journalist’s best guess. When your readers have a say about the local news or events that interest them most, then the publication has made a relational move that increases its relevance to its readers.

Certainly I am not saying all news coverage should be built that way. There always will be a need for the community watchdog-type of reporting about local government, schools, crime. But certainly in each of these categories, the readers should have a voice. To ignore them is to risk losing that relevance.

Relevance, I think, is where you begin building your online revenues. Relevance is what will draw readers back each day to a news website, to look around for the day’s offerings, for news they can use.