Friday, August 22, 2008

Some thoughts on 'going local'

Backtracking a bit, while I was in Chicago, Alan Mutter's blog had an excellent guest post from former Denver Post ME Joe H. Bullard on actually walking the walk when it comes to local news.

Bullard's proposal: Do away with many of the editors, send the reporters in the field and tell them they've got a 12-block coverage radius and, by god, they'd better have something almost every day from that area.

OK, so there's a little bit of inflammatory rhetoric in there, but I think he makes the point. And, as usual, I find as much to get me thinking in the comments as I do in the main post.

I direct your attention specifically to a comment by "bevo," a self-described journalist at "a rural daily paper." Some will interpret what Bevo says as a put-down of the whole idea, but I see it more as raising great challenges, the greatest being how do you provide coverage that has not only breadth but depth:

Let's say I live in Edmond, work in Oklahoma City, and have two kids in public school. The lunch menu is posted on line. Every Monday, I get notes about the going ons at the school. Why do I care about some zoned story in Edmond?

Does it affect my job? Does it affect my family's well being?

If the story is that good, why is the story not in the regular edition of the paper. The edition that the folks in Yukon, Mustang, and Norman get?
There's a strong reminder here that much of what was once in those legendary* local sections doesn't need to be any longer because the groups and agencies that once provided the material -- the lunch menus and stuff that made those sections important -- now publish it themselves. Through e-mail, RSS feeds and the like, it is highly accessible. My local high school has an athletics site that would put some small colleges to shame.

If you want more on this, read Steve Outing's recent post pointing to comments in which he points to another observation (sadly, offline now):

“I am fairly young, single, no kids, and no extended family in the large city where I live. I rent because I could never afford to buy here, and I’ll leave in the next couple of years because of it.

“I am concerned with exactly two items of ‘local news’ … when is the dog park in my neighborhood opening, and are there any train delays this morning. I get both of those things more quickly and efficiently from a source other than my local paper. (Dog park project listserv and text message alerts from the train people.)

“It pains me to say that, because I was a newspaper reporter for nearly a decade, and I like nothing more than to settle in for a good read with a bagel and juice in the morning. But pages upon pages of city council minutiae and youth baseball coverage say nothing to me except goodbye. Everything I read about ‘how to save newspapers’ includes the idea of hyper-local, but I can’t think of a better way to turn me OFF.”

Nowhere more than in hyper-local, it would seem, would Jeff Jarvis' advice be true: Do what you do best and link to the rest.

So what do we do best? If we are truly a journalism organization, we do best at finding things out. And the first thing to find out, of course, is what our readers in those local areas want. We do a darn poor job of that, and we assume that "community" is geographic when it can be so much more and probably is for many people.

So for a first step, let's arm editors and reporters with some real information about their communities. And I mean reporters -- right down to the newsroom floor. Forget that the suits have marketing studies or even the top editors. It is critical that reporters understand all the nuances, too. And not necessarily just marketing studies, but true community studies that pinpoint concerns, interests and solutions that may already be germinating. (But this should be reporting, you say? True, so let's put another twist on it -- each week every reporter has to write a 300-word summary of the same stuff based on what he or she found out this week, and it should be shard with everyone.) (BTW, in a related matter, Pat Thorton has an interesting post on using Web analytics to improve content.)

Then let's break the current model. Let's put most of the resources back out into the communities and reverse publish to the main edition (yes, I know that is nothing revolutionary, but as proved time and time again, it's largely fallen by the wayside as zoned editions have shriveled).

Notice, however, I did not say strictly "neighborhoods." Yes, that's one type of community, and needs to be covered. Although it became unfashionable in the '90s, such bricks-and-mortar coverage does help reinforce the social capital of community. But there are other communities, too. A reporter might have to double-up, taking a bricks-and-mortar and an "other." The problem I've seen with attempts to break away from the myopic "city hall" coverage in the past two decades is that in the process they often abandoned or severely emaciated the beat reporting of an earlier generation and actually reinforced any perceptions of being an outdated medium. The key is to meld the immediacy, but not the triviality, of that old beat coverage with the larger view afforded by such things as "circles."

This would mean changes in work flows. It would mean more replates and associated wastage. It might mean smaller papers. It means your sales force probably has to learn to sell a lot more of those small ads and less of ROP (by golly gee, let's break up the sales department while we're at it and force them back into the neighborhoods too because from what I read as much of the problem originates there as it does in the newsroom).

Yes, and if you are going to be innovative, you might have to bite the bullet. Certainly, if nothing else, you can do it online, which too many papers and other news sites still do not effectively do, while others outside the traditional structure move ahead on it.

As an interesting sidelight, Joe Murphy, a developer/programmer at the Post, weighs with a list of local online sites on the Post's site. And that's nice. But when I click on the home page of the Post or the Rocky, do I see any of those sites or pointers to them? Well, on the Rocky's home page, I either have to know to go to News/Local in the nav bar, or I can find "local news" links more than a screen and a half down the front page. Eyetrack research (larger picture) suggests anything below a screen and a half trails off significantly. The Post's, has no "local" headlines section at all (it does have a link to its local blogs). On its nav bar, the local news is under "home," so at least that extra click is not needed. But "Neighbors" is still nine items to the right. (And is "Neighbors" that apparent?)

Bottom line: What is the signal this sort of things sends to readers about how the organization values local news?

*I use "legendary" because I think memories are far more selective in not recalling that there was a fair amount of marginal stuff, too. David Sullivan takes a look at one local paper's offerings of 20 years ago. But the paper is still doing well, so what does that tell you?

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