A thank-you to community newspapers

This blog post was adapted from remarks the author made at the midwinter meeting of the Texas Press Association in Frisco in January 2014.

Thank you for missing dinner two nights recently because you were attending a county commission or school board meeting. You were there so you could inform thousands of readers who didn't want to be bothered.

You did. And you do. Week after week. Thank you.

Or maybe you were at a Relay for Life meeting where, in addition to reporting on all those volunteers, you probably also coordinated your own volunteer team. Thank you for contributing to the fabric of your community.

Thank you for making three telephone calls over several hours just to be sure the little girl who won a blue ribbon at the horse show spells "Christie" with a "c" and an "ie" instead of a "k" and two e's — or any other of about 20 variations for how Christie can be spelled.

Accuracy matters. It matters to Christie’s mama and daddy. It matters to all our readers. And it matters to you. Thank you.

Thank you for offering space to friends of a cancer victim washing cars to raise money to buy gas to get that lady to chemotherapy treatments. Your coverage made the difference between raising $1,500 instead of only $150. Thank you.

Thank you for being the greatest link — and the strongest protection — between your readers and those with the power to tax and govern — and the few who abuse that power. Thank you for speaking truth to power. Newspapers are often the only ones to do that.

Thank you for being the first transcribers of the only history your communities may ever record. Words and photos we preserve today are the priceless artifacts of lives treasured for generations to come.

Thank you for providing a low-cost, effective and reliable connection between hundreds of sometimes struggling small businesses and the buying public. You are a vital link between buyer and seller and an invested partner in the success of friends and neighbors. Thank you for working hard to help them succeed.

The late Robert Woodruff, longtime CEO of Coca-Cola, said: "You can have anything you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want." This is what great community newspapers do. Thank you for that commitment.

Thank you for being veterans in the war against secrecy and lies and greed. It takes little courage to write about a stranger among thousands or millions in a metropolitan city, but it takes tremendous dignity, daring and fortitude to write about the woman who sits in the next pew with you at church or the man who sits across from you at Rotary. You do it week after week with sensitivity and caring and fairness and accuracy. Thank you for that.

Have newspapers suffered in recent years? Of course! Community newspapers are a direct reflection — a mirror — of the economy of the towns and cities we serve. The economic crash that sent stocks and development plummeting affected every business we serve — and our newspapers reflect that. Communities are hurting and when our towns are injured, newspapers bleed. There is nothing wrong with America’s community newspapers that an overall improvement in our nation’s economy will not fix.

Thank you for not blindly following doomsayers who say newspapers' best days are behind them. But what do they not say?  Television viewership is being splintered into hundreds of channels — with far more of them focused on promoting sex and silliness than vital information that makes our families stronger, our values deeper, our home lives happier.

In Blackshear, Ga., and thousands of small communities just like it across America, community newspapers were “social media” before social media was cool! We’ve been connecting friends and neighbors and telling about who ate with who as far back as when country correspondents wrote about Mr. and Mrs. Jones "motoring" over to the next town last Sunday to have dinner. There's really not much new under the sun but we’ve told people about it all — for decades.

In my little town, if you want a Big Mac, there's only one place to get it: McDonald's. They have the franchise. You want a Whopper? There's only one place to get it: Burger King. They have the franchise. If you're in Blackshear, Ga., and you want local news there's only one place to get it: The Blackshear Times. We have the franchise. It's ours to lose. And we're not giving it up. It’s the same way in your town and thousands of others all over our nation. I know you’re not giving up your franchise as the place to find local news and information, either.

Warren Buffet said: “In towns and cities where there is a strong sense of community, there is no more important institution than the local paper.” Welcome to our world, Mr. Buffett. It’s reassuring to have you here.

Newspapers are a mirror of our communities, but you cannot see a reflection in the dark. Newspapers have to provide the light. It is hard for a community to rise above the quality and commitment of its local newspaper. Good newspapers build strong communities.

In America we talk about the value and dignity of every individual. Nowhere are those ideals better displayed than in America’s community newspapers. We start at birth! Every child born should have his or her announcement plus a photo in the newspaper. That child’s first and succeeding birthdays are often marked in our newspaper.

We love to publish pictures of children’s first day of school. Through the years we document reading achievement, math competitions, steer shows, athletic victories and countless other milestones of life. Graduation is a big deal in every community. Our documentation of the value of each individual life goes on and on — through engagement, marriage, more births, anniversaries, job promotions.  You name it and we travel life’s path right with the people who surround us, all the way to the grave — and even beyond, with Memorials!

Who cares more about the success, prosperity and happiness of people in your community than you? Nobody!

Are people going to stop loving high school football in Granbury? No!  Are people going to stop caring whether their taxes go up or down in El Dorado? No! Are people going to stop wanting to see children's names on the honor roll in Decatur? No!  Are people going to stop wondering who is going bankrupt or buying building permits in Port Aransas? No!

We believe people will always want to know about their taxes and what their governments are doing.

We believe people will always want to see children’s names and faces publicized for their triumphs and tributes.

We believe there will always be a desire for accountability in government!

We believe in the critical need for accuracy and fairness as demonstrated by professional journalists.

We believe in newspapers!

Thank you for being a part of this great and valuable industry.


Time to re-examine how we cover news

The new year is a time to re-examine ourselves. And often we stop the re-examination with our waistline and our wallet. One’s typically too fat and the other’s too thin, so we decide to re-order our priorities to eat better and exercise more and control our spending.

But as newspaper people, we can’t just stop there.  We have to re-examine our core mission:  telling people what’s going on in our community.

When you were growing up, you had three in-home entertainment options:  the three major TV networks.  Now, your TV probably offers you hundreds of channels – not to mention the additional options on your computer or smart phone. In the days of the three TV networks, we typically had one local information option, the newspaper.

Back then, our major competitor was the back fence and the telephone – people telling each other one-to-one what had happened.  But the newspaper gave us detailed and reliable information.

Today, even in small communities. We have many more sources of news.  Social media explore news and offer pictures almost instantaneously. Everyone from teenagers to senior citizens is now sharing news and photos and performing part of the journalistic function people used to look to the newspaper for.

And the most significant impact of our new news mix is that people aren’t willing to wait. People who want fast food and fast service, who are accustomed to getting international news and national news and state news as it happens, aren’t going to wait for Thursday to read their local news.

One international news consultant put it this way:  “… if we don’t change the editorial model, our print product becomes just a compilation of old news, known stories, and heard comments. Dead bodies. Forensic journalism. Outdated content that nobody needs, nobody will pay for, deserted by advertisers that will realize that we are losing ground, not having anything new, unique, and necessary to buy our print paper.”

So along with checking our bathroom scales and our bank records, we need to spend some time looking at the local news we cover.  Take several months of your newspaper, look at your news coverage, and answer the following questions:

1. When was the news event, and when did it appear on your social media sites, on your website, and in your newspaper?  Are you covering news as it happens in social media and online, and presenting more explanation and information in print?

2.  Are you, in effect, telling your readers to “wait until the paper comes out” to read the news?

3.  Do you try to make important news interesting by looking for its implications for readers?  Do you look for the so-what angle or just report on votes taken by city councils and school boards?

4.  Do agendas and events dominate your news coverage?  Is your paper full of meeting stories and crime/accident stories, or do you report on trends and localize national stories and analyze trends and lifestyle changes?

Alan Mutter, in his Newsosaur blog, explained our fixation with business-as-usual in reporting the news:  “All too many papers cover episodic, and often dreary, institutional activity, favoring regulatory hearings, legal proceedings, government reports and a wretched excess of unfortunate but largely insignificant crimes and fires. Instead, newspapers should bring issues alive by reporting on the human dimension – and consequences – of the major events of the day. Rather than covering City Hall politics and school board squabbles, newspapers should write in human terms about how policies and official malfeasance affect individuals and the community. Rather than talking about abstract subjects like the state unemployment rate, newspapers should provide career and job-hunting tips. How will a decision to reduce library hours affect users? What are cops and community leaders doing to fight high crime rates? How does park maintenance in our town compare with the maintenance in others? Think about the things that affect the daily lives of ordinary citizens. Then, cover them.”

5.  Do you ever surprise your readers?  Go through your news pages and cross out every story that originated in a meeting or a speech.  Then cross out every story about wrecks and fires and crimes.  Then cross out everything dealing with awards and promotions and contests and prizes. Then cross out election announcement and election result stories.  What’s left?

If energy companies are using fracking in your area, have you called a local university to find out about potential effects on the environment?  Have you talked with homeowners near well sites to see how it is affecting them?  Have you talked with teachers in your schools about how high-stakes assessment is impacting what they do in the classroom? Did you just announce the junior-senior prom, or did you talk with its organizers to see if twerking or other suggestive dances would be allowed?

6.  A former North Carolina editor noted that he spends the most time working, sleeping, eating, being with his wife and children and friends, taking care of his home, and leisure.  He then looked for newspaper articles on each of those areas in which he was invested – and found almost nothing.

He wrote: “What would happen if the newspaper or TV station compared their typical content with the day-to-day interests and activities of their readers/viewers? And what if they took those results and changed the way they report the news? Would that make their products more relevant to the people they aim to serve?”

So take some time to look at your reporting, not from the standpoint of traditional journalism only, but from the standpoint of your readers and what they want to know. And remember, the idea of a weekly came from the days of scarcity of information, when people looked forward to the once-a-week arrival of the newspaper because it contained information they wanted.  No longer.  As we love to say at the Center, you may be a weekly in print, but you need to be a daily in social media and online.  Our real job is to be THE go-to source for news in your community.  Immediately, and interactively, in social media and online, and with explanation and perspective in print.