Too much Charmin, not enough sandpaper: Bad news has a place in community journalism

Reposted with permission of the author.

It's the most common reader complaint, heard throughout the history of hometown newspapers. Benjamin Franklin got an earful as publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette. You probably heard it yesterday.
"There's nothing but bad news in the paper. Why don't you write about some of the good things happening in this town?"

Of course, you scratch your noggin' when you take another look at the latest edition stuffed full of positive news — weddings, engagements, sports coverage, people features, club meeting reports, church news, etc., seemingly none of it noticed by the complainer. 

But I'm here to share a revelation. Here's the fact of the matter. When readers say they don't want to read "bad news,” they aren't telling the truth.

I won't use the term "lie" because Mr. Iwannamoregoodnews isn't being intentionally deceptive. He just blocks out the fact he devours "bad news" much like a lion feasts on antelope. The good news he sips as a proper Englishman consumes a cup of tea.

A building burns to the ground vs. the high school band's trip to New York City? Believe me, the fire story will win the readership contest, 10-1. 

City council ponders a stiff increase in the city income tax vs. city council accepts a $300,000 Federal grant for street improvements? The potential tax increase wins, 10-1.

Murder on Elm Street vs. United Way campaign reaches goal? Murder wins like Secretariat blazing down the home stretch at the Belmont.

This is why, given my experience going over hundreds of circulation reports,  it's no surprise that newspapers with a heavier emphasis on hard/straight – often "bad" — news invariably enjoy far better circulation penetration of their community than papers that load up (especially on their front pages) with soft fluffy — "good"  — news.

It's not that I'm recommending you yank the peewee league results or class reunion pictures. It is that I think too many community newspapers run too much Charmin, not enough sandpaper.

Somehow, the powers that be at many papers feel the mission is to be the positive paper – unlike the nearby metro daily that runs the bad stuff. Be positive/be loved, so the theory goes.

Unfortunately, the theory is like sugar in a cup of coffee. A couple teaspoons may be just right. Ten teaspoons are enough to make you gag.

So I'm here to defend bad news. Bad news gets a bad rap. There isn't enough bad news in perhaps 50 percent of the community papers I read.

Bad news is good news for newspapers for a number of reasons:

  • Like it or not, we humans are programmed to pay more attention to an emergency (a snowstorm), or a major problem brewing (the city is broke and needs more tax revenue) than stories about two straight weeks of 75 degrees and sunshine, or the mayor gloating over a balanced budget. There's good reason we're programmed this way. The bad news must be dealt with, and our instincts and emotions correctly tell us so. We may not always like it, but bad news harpoons our interest, demands action.
  • Bad news is important news and a newspaper that fails to report it is akin to a bad parent ignoring a teen's drug abuse. If confronted, the kid won't like it just as many readers won't like a story about teen drug abuse in your paper. But it needs to be exposed, dealt with.
  • Bad news builds readership because it attracts attention and deep down readers want it, although they may not like it. Again, I've perused the circulation trends at hundreds of hometown newspapers. The papers that do the best job covering hard news and that dig deep into important issues and comment on those issues are papers that sell. Yes, they're also the papers that catch the most flak in their role as the messenger some in the community would love to kill. But invariably they're the best-read, most relevant newspapers, and deservedly so.


So back again to the gist of my argument.

Certainly, I’m not suggesting any newspaper cut good news, or the personal news that’s a tradition in hometown journalism. However, I do run into too many community papers that allow themselves to enter a zone of almost complete ethereal comfy content that only serves to diminish readership and credibility.

So take a good look at your latest edition.

Here's hoping there's a healthy dose of bad news in its pages.