To save local news, adaptation isn't nostalgia
Updated: Jan 14, 2020
These are no times for nostalgia at American newspapers – where I spent decades of my career. Those days when the building shook as the press started were warm and fuzzy for those of us who recall such things, but that needs to be set aside like a box of old Zip drives or an AOL email address.
However, in the understandable, urgent quest to shed things that can’t or don’t matter any longer, too many local news outlets have shed practices that are anything but nostalgic. They've damaged their franchises by jettisoning some of the critical standards that should mark a successful local news operation in any era.
Here are three core values that aren’t nostalgic. Indeed, I’d argue they’re mission critical.
1. “Quantity” vs. “quality” of local news isn’t a choice. It’s an “and.”
You don’t need market research to understand that people want a lot of local news in their newspaper or on a local news website. Alas, some outlets have become mainly big-game hunters. They do a great job on a few beats and chosen projects, but there’s a huge disconnect with readers who wonder where all their local news went.
Don’t get me wrong. Resources for investigative journalism never have mattered more. The shrugged-shoulder answer is that “we can’t be all things to all people anymore.” Well, yeah, but editors have always set priorities and faced choices.
There's much to learn from outlets that still sustain high volumes of local news, ranging from print papers with long histories to digital-only startups. I’m fortunate to live in Brunswick County, North Carolina, where the local weekly, “The Brunswick Beacon,” publishes more local news once a week than (sadly) some dailies produce in seven days now. While the Beacon certainly has room for improvement, publishing lots of local news creates a solid foundation. When I go back to markets I know well or see reactions from residents on social media, the common threads are complaints about the lack of coverage. I've listened to reader complaints for decades. Trust me, this seems different and far more concerning. In some ways it's not fair, because I know those staffs care and continue to produce great work. Perhaps that's the price you pay for abandoning the notion that "lots of local news" is important.
Here's my hypothesis: Outlets with “lots of local news” do better with audience growth and retention and probably financially. Alisa Cromer of Local Media Insider has been examining the traits of successful papers. Beyond geographic and demographic advantages, she found this commonality: “For the super healthy newspapers exclusive local news is more than a product; it is their superpower.”
I think it should be a higher priority to find the best ways to leverage artificial intelligence, social media, reader submissions, staff structures, new partnerships and other strategies to generate more local content and still leave resources for in-depth journalism. (I didn't say it would be easy.) GateHouse’s “GeoReporter” project being funded by the Google News Initiative is one example, and hopefully these efforts will continue now that GateHouse and Gannett have merged into America's largest newspaper group.
2. Young journalists need mentors and training
When I was a 25-year-old reporter at the Galesburg, Ill., Register-Mail, I was hungry to excel but impatient and overconfident at times. (I will always remember the time I had to correct a correction.) Sometimes I wrote stories that weren’t as ready as I thought.
Fortunately, there were experienced editors who saw both my potential and my flaws. Our executive editor was a pro who knew the community. The managing editor came to us, as I recall, from the copy desk at the Indianapolis Star. They knew how to guide a staff and protect the newspaper’s credibility.
Later, when I became a news editor in Racine, Wis., Lee Enterprises provided fabulous training opportunities for me.
Such support is rarer today, and the reasons are obvious – poverty of time and money. Reporters and editors are under more pressure, and there are fewer of them. In some cases, the local reporter’s nearest editor is several counties or states away. Training and travel budgets are skimpier. Low pay and declining growth opportunities make it harder than ever to find and retain good people.
Today’s young journalists remain passionate about their craft, and certainly most owners want to develop and retain talent. Foundations, universities and media trade associations also have initiatives and capacity to support what individual owners and groups are doing.
I wish I had a clear prescription. It starts with focus. All the different groups who work in media training and leadership must align to maximize resources so young journalists have strong mentors and see an industry with opportunities for them. (And, by the way, the same big challenges are on the sales side in many cases.)
3. Maestro! Maestro! Embrace great visuals and smart storytelling.
Who decided great photography wasn't important? It seems self-evident to want dramatic, compelling photos on your section fronts and the key pages of your website. However, sharp reductions in photographer positions and freelance budgets have shifted the task to reporters and their smartphones. Sometimes that’s good enough, but certainly not always.
Thriving businesses get people to think of their products as more than optional commodities. Local media outlets create strong bonds through being credible, helpful and useful (e.g., lots of local news) and offering experiences that are emotionally satisfying. Great visuals evoke emotional connections. Every local news outlet should have frequent assignments or projects in which visual excellence will make readers pause.
And the “how” to storytelling matters tremendously. In the 1990s, Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark and Don Fry, and Buck Ryan, then at Northwestern, demonstrated how a few minutes of front-end planning can yield great results for readers. Clark and Fry taught how a quick, early conversation between reporter and editor can make stories better. (Read their classic book, “Coaching Writers.”) Ryan pioneered the “maestro concept,” which was an easy-to-use, front-end tool to determine the best presentation methods for telling a story. Note that these approaches aren’t time hogs. They often save time because there’s less rework at the end of the process. In the digital space, which allows you to use any and all multimedia tools for storytelling, this approach offers even greater opportunities.
Here’s a simple example: It doesn’t take any longer to write a shorter story about an upcoming community event or a football game with a breakout box that highlights the key takeaways. It might even take less time since weaving those critical details into a longer text story takes more thought, forces readers to hunt for the information and almost always results in a duller story.
Again, this isn’t nostalgia. It’s about adaptation. Newspapers that embrace local news, strong staffs and first-rate presentation will keep readers front-and-center, serve their communities better and have the best chance of producing marketable products that can survive the shakeouts still to come.
Dennis Hetzel lives in Holden Beach NC where his firm Fresh Angle Communications provides media consulting and writing-editing services. He is the former executive director of the Ohio News Media Association, general manager for Kentucky at Enquirer Media in Cincinnati, and editor and publisher of the York, Pa., Daily Record. He also has taught journalism at Penn State and Temple universities and written two award-winning novels.