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June 05, 2008


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Too many newspapers cover local news like a junior high school newspaper. They write boring stories about boring events. That's often because they never back up their rhetoric about having skilled reporters and editors cover these issues. Instead, they stick the most inexperienced people there, cover the stories poorly and then wonder why no one reads them. They associate local news with drivel, and what they end up with are no readers and stories that suck. They also refuse to realize that local news often means leaving the city limits to cover a story with major local ramifications. Got a major employers that has problems in another city or state and those problems are affecting jobs at home? Sorry. We can't cover that. That's not local news. But who will cover it in a way that resonates with local readers? No one. And so and so on. Readers want interesting stories, not focus-group, business-school driven pablum.

You hit the nail on the head. I just left the Baltimore Sun after 35 years there. One of the Alice in Wonderland moments from the last few years was a presentation by the marketing types of a survey that showed that the most popular reason for reading the paper was national and international news. Their conclusion: go more local. Go figure.

At The Sun, circulation is flat and website use is skyrocketing. The product is popular, and would be even more popular without all the cutbacks of recent years. It is the business model that is failing. But what does Lee Abrams want to do? Turn the product into some sort of tabloid lifestyle celebrity sheet.
As I said on my way out, hammering on the newsroom for the circulation/ad revenue problems is like record company execs telling Bruce Springsteen that if he changed the bass riff in a song then kids would stop file sharing.

Oh so very true from this side of the Atlantic as well.

Still waiting to see anything original from the advertising department of any newspaper in the UK.

Whilst journalists who are trying to be creative and produce news in interesting and engaging ways are being cut back ruthlessly.

Survey after survey show people say they want local. So what is your evidence they do not? I'm looking at papers that didn't give local reporting 10 to 20 percent declines in circulation in the last five years, and also seeing papers under 100,000 that are holding their own giving local news to local audiences. You can ridicule it as Little League coverage if you want, but it isn't that these successful newspapers are following local sports that closely. You can ridicule it as local-local if you want, but these successful papers are doing very well covering city hall and local police. They have a columnist who writes about local issues, not national politics. The cover downtown parades with one or two pieces of art and a short story, not a novella. That the Post went into Loudoun County, center of Washington's horse country (Leesburg and Middleburg), and yet refused to cover horse events or horse society events shows they had no idea of what they were doing.

This column hits the nail on the head.

One problem is that too many newspapers are afraid or unwilling to take on City Hall anymore. At the newspaper that I work at, we constantly report on items missed by our much larger competitor on a city level either because they are too cozy with town officials or because they are forgetting a newspaper's role as government watchdog.

Strangely, their state politics coverage is the exact opposite and extremely interesting, perhaps because they put their best reporters on those beats.

Either way, people love to read these types of hard-hitting stories.

Plus, you are right in that any story -- local, national, etc. has to be INTERESTING.

Other "elite" journalists may laugh at us when we write about a giant poker game bust in a muffler shop, the local tour of urban chicken coops, or a man who had to retrieve his winning lottery ticket from the bottom of a dumpster, but at least people are reading. Yes, we write more serious articles, but we don't shy away from the ones that are interesting either.

PS: Exactly, what WAS LoudonExtra's traffic anyway? It wasn't mentioned in either this article or the WSJ one.

Small newspapers have a different business model. It's that simple. Some are good, most are bad, but all are relatively cheap to operate. Those few that do outstanding serious journalism are not hurt by that fact.

It's amazing to hear so many people chime in on your observations - all of which are spot on. It's amazing because it seems that overwhelmingly the alarm was sounded over the editorial direction that resulted in the declines so many metro newspapers have taken that, for it to have happened anyway, really makes you wonder about leadership in the industry. Group-think is a very accurate description. It's sad so many good people have paid for the folly of their bosses.

Part of it is that newspapers have become arrogant. As you correctly point out, very few newspapers have aggressively pursued cop reporting, as just one example. The reason is that we consider ourselves too intellectual, too elitist, to sully our hands with such dirty reporting. We like our blockbuster investigations, and parroting of the obvious national story, but have really let slide the content that created mass circulation to begin with.

Not strictly crime, but political analysis, independent reporting, meaningful photography. We used to chase spot news - not because we wanted car wrecks in the newspaper, but because sometimes meaning or heroism or goodness knows what could be captured on film, and create empathy among readers. But editors don't want that in their newspaper. Leadership has been putting square pegs in round holes. They need to be held accountable for the editorial direction they themselves created.

Hyper local doesn't have to be uber-boring, but that seems to be the bent we are on. We need to be interesting, not just local. I don't know that we're either, really.

Bad local journalism is bad local journalism. In Philly in the late '90s they had local print sections that produced horrible local coverage to its suburbs (I know, I wrote some of it). The exodus of readers to 'burbs had befuddled many editors. People tried to cover city councils like they did the big cities, but not broad stories about growth, environmental impact, graft and corruption, etc.

True "hyperlocal" to me is delivering an intense coverage of an area a niche readership cares about. Cleveland is doing medical (I know, I'm writing some of it) because it's the biggest industry in the region. But that means writing about national issues about charity care, change in the quality of life of medical residents, big pharma's influence, etc. along with local gossip.

Local doesn't mean provincial.

"While Web geeks and designers were given broad control, not just over the platform or the look, but the content..."

Jon: Who--or what--are you talking about here? In what newspaper were geeks and designers given "broad control" over the content of the newspaper? When did this happen? Got any links that would inform us about the examples of....?

The context in which you made that (surprising!) statement was "newsrooms around the country." Which ones? I don't know of any cases, so I am wondering: at which newspapers have geeks and designers been handed broad editorial control?

I covered local government in a suburb of 90,000 for the Spokane Spokesman-Review in Eastern Washington.

About a year ago, a senior editor went on a vision quest of sorts to newsrooms all over the country -- including the Washington Post -- to help divine the future of the paper. Her report exulted "citizen" journalism and intensely local coverage as among the initiatives that would save our publication.

Later last year, management laid off all but one of the reporters in the paper's two outlying bureaus.

I cleaned out my desk in Spokane Valley four days before a contentious City Council election.

It doesn't take a visionary to point out that thorough, local journalism has always been the primary reason people buy the paper. I don't have the answer to the newspaper industry's business model crisis. But I find it maddening that all of the recent navel gazing about community coverage takes place at the same time reporters who already provide it are shown the door.

I know some of the geeks involved. And yes, they were given broad control over content, at least online. And the last thing on their minds, or in their backgrounds, was journalism.

Speaking as someone who worked for the LA Times' short-lived "Our Times" community sections in the late '90s: The problem is not that they're focusing on "local-local," it's the idea that they treat it like a warm & fuzzy block party -- completely devoid of important stories and art direction that resembles a children's book.

These hyperlocal sites prominently feature photos of Little Leaguers and do everything they can to hammer home the point that you will see nothing urgent, breaking or interesting on the page.

There are a few local sites with a strong voice, a passionate, involved community, and a desire to break news. Those are the ones that will be successful.

Jon: According to the WSJ article, one major factor in this is the failure of Curley's team to sufficiently 'get to know' Loudon -- a major problem especially in light of the highly probable set of assumptions Curley may have imported from his earlier experiences in Kansas and Florida -- assumptions that were probably incorrect.

Also, the WSJ notes that Curley's effort was stymied by the Post folks blocking certain cross-traffic approaches for legal and other reasons. Any web-based journalism effort needs traffic strategies that build instead of block traffic.

In addition, the Post has continued its long standing policy of keeping web and paper staffs separate.

Finally, the WSJ writer seems to have a deep felt need to trivialize 'local' things. It's a tone that too easily generates more noise than signal.

All of this points to an evolving story that has a lot of nuance. Profit and shareholder-driven concerns of too many owners/managers is a major force in all this. And, by the way, so has been the resistance/reluctance of too many print-based journalists understandably worried about job security. And, so has been the dramatically shifting habits of consumption of news among folks now under, say, 45. And many many other factors too.

It is important that you've highlighted this story and shared your insights. And, it is also important to avoid main stream media's addiction for overly simplified 'narratives'.

"I know some of the geeks involved. And yes, they were given broad control over content, at least online."

Really, Michael? Where is this? Jon? Anyone? Geeks and designers--with no journalism in their background--given broad control over the editorial content of local news sections. The places where that has happened are not a secret, are they?

I saw the rising power of the geeks and design people at several papers, especially at Gannett (which was the industry's tragically influential template), and especially with the so-called Information Center. And let's not forget the unending stream of highly paid "consultants."

Design and tech are great in their place. The big problem was many of these people had nothing but contempt for journalism. Their influence expanded, helped by bosses who were afraid for their jobs, with companies just there to please Wall Street (profit margins, not readership, were the metrics that counted). There was no care or nuance in evaluating, conserving and supporting the things we did well, and that readers responded to. The journalists on the front lines, who saw how we were failing, were ignored. The slow, unresponsive slugs in the newsroom always seemed to keep their jobs. I sat in meetings where the techies and some designers proudly said they didn't even read the newspaper. Every three months a new, and contradictory, initiative came down. No follow through. Lower quality each time. No successful industry would have done this.

When the bosses pushed "local local" they meant boring, vanilla...stuff that wouldn't cause angry phone calls or make advertisers fret. Real local news has always been a strength of good newspapers -- we didn't need consultants to tell us this (how many newsroom jobs did their fees cost?). But it was so convenient to use "local local" as a way to gut the paper -- downplay the "upsetting" stuff about wars, global warming, corruption, etc.

The success of sites like HuffPo and Talking Points Memo shows the news, journalism and columnizing work. The leaders of our industry failed on a colossal scale, taking many of us down with them. But they landed safely, unlike many of us.

I read the whole article but none of the comments, so bear with me if I repeat or refute anything said before.

Other things newspapers have never understood-

1. They are not the fastest news-delivery method. Radio and TV trumped them years ago and the internet has made news immediate. If you can't be first, you have to provide something better. I don't even think being fast is a good idea, since those that are fast are often wrong. Think about the early reports that Reagan was shot dead, or the early reports of the nail bomb at the Atlanta Olympics (I watched that one unfold in real-time and I witnessed talking heads making huge misinterpretations of the same live interviews that I watched). Why does anyone who claims to value accuracy and insight spend more resources on being first-and-wrong rather than right-as-soon-as-possible. That's why I don't watch TV news either.

2. Getting an entire paper when I only read a couple of sections is wasteful. They insist that I get all or nothing, so I choose nothing. The presses have been assembling the paper in sections and those sections have been assembled into whole papers for many years. Some assembly was even done by the paperboys themselves, so they have the technology. They could deliver custom content if they tried. I'm not even talking about custom articles (there are news-clipping agencies that do this already), just give me the sections I read and not the ones I don't. It would reduce landfill (even with re-cycling) and reduce their costs of production and delivery. It would give them current information about what parts of the paper have real value to their readers, allowing them to shift resources to the ones their customers want or allow them to shore weaker sections. It would also be a good way to target ad revenue and justify rates - "we know this many people read the section your ad is in because they ask for it specifically." It's not even about cost. I would pay the same rate as the whole daily paper for the sections I want. I just don't wrap that many fish.

The San Jose Mercury News is a prime example of the decline of the American newsroom. When I started there in 1990, not a month went by without a hard-hitting, Pulitzer-quality series of one type or another, whether it was corruption in the state Legislature or outrageous administrator salaries amid declining suburban schools. In addition we had eight zoned local editions, each containing at least one local government story a day. It was an exciting, vibrant newsroom, and I looked forward to an interesting, busy day of work every day and felt proud to be part of such a revered operation. But in mid-1996, it all changed instantly when a former photographer-turned-managing editor decided that "visual journalism" was the new wave, and the rapid slide began with the hiring of fresh-out-of-college neophytes who didn't have a clue how to think, write or spell. (Contrast this with my efforts to get hired: I had tried since 1984 to get in there, and finally was hired in 1990 at the ripe old age of 35.) Anyway, layout and design soon trumped reporting, and management began to hire waves of 20-something "designers" for the "design team" and had endless meetings about "visual journalism" while the paper was bleeding core readers because the front page began to get cluttered with sports stories and celebrity crap day after day, despite readers' vehement objections. When Jerry Garcia died, it was the front page centerpiece for four consecutive days! Such absurd news judgment continued unabated, with the death of Diana even trumping that of Mother Teresa for placement on page one! Those of us veterans who did not subscribe to the declining standards were sidelined, maligned, not given promotions or otherwise forced out, as were the old-timers. Everything from this point was "focus group" driven, and every major initiative--from PC diversity "outreach" such as minority-focused weekly inserts--failed miserably, and the bleeding continued. The result: the paper is now a sweatshop, with zero meaningful content but--my-oh-my--lots of Photoshopping and "entry points." So blame the decline of the newsroom on newspapers' forsaking their role as watchdog of government in favor of the dumbing down of the populace. It is that simple.

MWA has the best point here. If you all think the Loudoun situation just means "local-local" has no audience -- you're fooling yourselves. Successful and valued "local-local" includes the warm fuzzies AND the breaking news. (Although I don't necessarily agree with the "art direction" note - this information can be delivered without too much style, as long as the substance is there. See paulding.com.)

But perhaps the primary mistake made by both the Loudoun venture and so many other attempts in old-media organizations is this: They believed "if we build it, they ('users' contributing 'content') will come." I come from decades of old media myself, and cringed to hear clueless bosses run around saying UGC! UGC! We just need to put up a site and we'll get lots of UGC!

Local-local needs to be staffed by people who find and produce the content, from on the street, out of the office, in those local-local neighborhoods. Yes, you will get tips, photos, video, even stories sometimes from the people in the neighborhoods you are covering, though probably only in a tenth the volume - if that - of what you produce and provide. But those people want to interact with someone - they don't just want to go to "a site" and use "a tool" to "upload" their "content." They want to TELL YOU - and their neighbors -- their stories, which you, the local-local site operator, likely then will share.

Unfortunately, as another commenter has pointed out, the people who were best positioned to do that - the bureau reporters for small towns, neighborhoods, suburbs - have gotten the ax. That's why new independent media organizations (from one-person "blogs" to sizably staffed online "publications") are rising to fill the void created by old-media cutbacks ... I have often said I hope more of those cast-aside ex-old media types will be the ones to start their own businesses doing what their ex-employers foolishly failed to value.

Nobody doubts the market for compelling local news. This is what the best of journalism always included. Trouble is, now it often means dull, inoffensive, cheerleading features, and shallow breaking news. The dependence on single sources and official public information officers is especially troubling. The public is the loser here.

Jon, I agree with much of what you say about the decline in compelling, high impact local coverage by many newspapers.

But you and WSJ lose me with the condemnation of hyperlocal strategies elsewhere based on what's happened with Loudoun Extra, because Loudoun Extra sure doesn't look like a hyperlocal play. It covers an area with 270,000 people living in 18 cities or towns (like Rob Curley, I don't know the area and base this info on what I find here: http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/51/51107.html). Loudoun Extra itself lists 20 high schools in its coverage area.

OK, I figured, maybe if you go to the web site, you can drill down by city or town. Go ahead, try finding a city or town page. I couldn't.

Go to the Loudoun Extra calendar page: http://loudounextra.washingtonpost.com/events. Try to find listings by city. (Ironically, when I went to the Post's events page, I did find city-by-city listings, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/cityguide/dc-events-activities.html.)

Hyperlocal can build an audience. I witnessed that first-hand when I was with GetLocalNews.com and we had a huge audience on BeniciaNews.com, our pilot site. It had that high-impact local journalism AND photos of cheerleaders and football players AND reader-contributions. We had 30,000 unique visitors a month in a city of 28,000 people. The problem was revenues. So, you're right, Jon, when you say the problem is the business model. But it's hard for me to look at Loudoun Extra and see lessons that can be applied to hyperlocal strategies.

If you are looking for innovation in local news and community engagement, let me just politely point you to a local, visually-driven newspaper in (gasp!) a non- U.S. newsroom that has more than tripled it's paid circulation over the last three years and quadrupled it's Web traffic over the last 12 months because it fundamentally partners with it's consumers to report the news.

In my travels work with editors and reporters in over 16 countries over the past couple years, I have happily stumbled upon the upstart A4-sized daily paper 24 Sata (24 Hours)

24sata.hr is run by a 31-year-old editor-in-chief. He has developed a rich palette of 'touch points' for readers to submit news tips and in print and online makes a compelling visually driven news product that is extremely practical for his community. He puts reader input and interactive packaging at the core of every desk in his newsroom. The very thing many editors talk about but few accomplish.

This editor has the readers, their attention and a model worth examining.

Nowhere in the U.S will you find a paper that is successful at hyper-local news, 24/7 community engagement and the rare air of finding value of partnering with readers and users.

Disclaimer: I was hired to train their journalists but make no mistake - they were wildly successful be fore I transferred my humble teachings to them in a few February seminars.

So, there is a case study worth examining further. One that, just as importantly, makes gobs of money for it's investors.

The question in my experience is how big is your vision, how entrepreneurial is your E.I.C. and how patient are your backers?

Just go to Google, and type in "Loudoun News" or "Loudoun-News"...the first few entries (NOT LoudounExtra) are the long-established local news providers, getting it right online and off. Also shows that LoudounExtra could've used an Internet Marketing lesson or two, in touch with Northern Virginia.

I'll second buckborden's point about design and "visuals" trumping content with a personal anecdote. Not long ago I made the great mistake of protesting in writing the breaking up of one my columns into small individual snippets to better facilitate the design. I pointed out that this was a classic example of the general trend in newspapers toward valuing design over content. My reward was to be rebuked by the managing editor for even suggesting such a thing, and for questioning the work of the design desk -- all of which, of course, only demonstrated the essential truth of my point.

'Newspaper suicide watch: the folly of "local-local":

'Newspaper suicide watch: the folly of "local-local":

I'm going off the topic of hyperlocal, but I'm really sick of seeing the phrase "web geek."

I'm not really opposed to the phrase itself, because I suppose I am a web geek as much as a print reporter is a "typist."

I don't know if it comes from lack of understanding what I actually do or what, but the phrase rarely could be called a term of endearment.

And do you honestly think "web geeks" have a contempt for journalism? We just have different visions. Yours happens to ignore everything we understand about technology, because the curmudgeon class (Rosen's phrase, not mine, but I'm starting to agree with it) refuses to understand that tech.

That's the real issue here; Newspapers all too often just pay these ideas lip service, glossing over them as if the "web geeks" will magically make everything OK.

This is a serious business and journalism issue. If some guy can post stupid cat pictures with dumb phrases on them, and make a living and grow an audience, why can't the pencil pushers and the typists do the same?

Certainly it costs more to produce good journalism than it does to photoshop a funny picture, but are you really telling me you can't make that block of text relevant to your potential audience? Are you really saying you can't find a way to make that page profitable?

I don't know who that reflects more poorly on: the public or the people creating the content.

We print reporters prefer "hack."

No disrespect intended to tech and those proficient in it. I was among the earliest news managers pushing Knight Ridder to get online and use the Web and new technology.

Unfortunately, all too often the big bosses use tech toys (and design) as another excuse to cut substantive content. When journalists raise questions, they are dismissed as "curmudgeons who are opposed to all change."

That certainly hasn't been my experience with most veterans, who know well how much the industry needs to change. But the "opposed to change" slur is a convenient way of dismissing dissent and valid questions.

Some sites, such as the Online Journal, NYT and WaPo are beginning to show the potential of technology working with substantive journalism. I'm all for it.

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