Future of news

News consumption is changing, and newspapers have to change too

Imagine three baskets in your newsroom – and you have to put every story in one of the three baskets.

One is labeled what, another one so what, and the last is now what? The idea of the baskets, the brainchild of Washington Post reporter Chris Cillizza, comes from the reality that journalism has shifted away from being a “what happened” field.

Modern journalism was built on reporting what happened. We brought the news to America. People turned to newspapers to find out what was happening in their world. But that franchise has been eroding at the hands of first radio, then TV, then the Internet. For several decades now, our major metro newspapers have not been the primary medium people turned to for up-to-date information.

But community newspapers were different. Our job is not to cover the world or the nation or even the state. It’s to cover our city and county. And often, we were literally the only game in town – the only medium that had the reporters to go out and cover the news in print and photographs. People could read their news in the paper or in our online editions.

So whether it was a school board meeting or a football game or the county fair or a fatality accident just outside of town, we had complete and accurate information – and pictures. Sure, maybe people heard about the accident or talked about it at the coffee shop, but when the paper came out we satisfied their news hunger for complete information. They may have known who won the football game, but we gave them the quarterback’s completion stats, the number of tackles the star linebacker made, the post-game comments of the coach, and a rundown on next week’s opponent.

Radio and TV and the Web ate into the hard news franchise of the metros, but for community papers – not so much.

Until social media.

Facebook now has 1.6 billion users, more than 60 percent of whom are logged in for at least 20 minutes a day, according to the Economist. Contrast that with the Washington Post, which has the biggest Web traffic of any U.S. publisher. The Post received 73 million visits during the entire month of March, with readers spending an average of one to three minutes per visit.

No matter how small or isolated your community, people are spending lots of time on Facebook every day. When they hear about news, they share it – with pictures. It’s an axiom that a lie can spread halfway around the world while truth is putting on its boots. The modern media equivalent of that is that news can spread through your community while you are figuring out who should write the story.

So if your newspaper’s claim to fame is being first with the news, that ship has probably long since sailed. If you tell people only what they already know, they’ll think you are irrelevant. And nothing is so damning to a newspaper as the reputation that it contains “old news.”

Facebook is not a “detail” medium. Facebook readers get only the big picture, the major points of the news. But when we write that same story, what do we lead with? The big picture, the major points — so it’s the readers’ perspective that we’re telling them what they already know.

Of course, we still need to print the what-happened news, but there has to be more. As we move more of the breaking news to social media and our online edition (because you may be a weekly in print, but you have to be a daily online and in social media), that means we need to focus more on the other two boxes – so what and now what.

We don’t just tell readers what happened at City Council. We look for how those actions will impact citizens. What will that mean for their safety or their pocketbook or the economic future of the community? We do a rundown of the what-happened, but we focus on its impact on the community and on our readers.

So perhaps the school board has voted to reduce the teaching faculty in elementary schools as a cost-cutting measure. What will that mean to class sizes? How will it impact student learning and test scores? What do teachers think? A budget saving proposal might look good until your realize that your kid’s third-grade class will go from 25 to 34 kids – and the students with learning problems will be the most adversely affected.

Unfortunately, this kind of reporting takes more time. It’s a lot easier to take notes at a meeting and produce a story that reports votes and quotes from the participants.

The real issue here is staying relevant for our readers. And if it takes re-thinking our stories – classifying each as a what or so what or now what story, that will be time well-spent.

Note: This blogpost has focused on news coverage. To see how this same idea impacts sports coverage, see our earlier blogpost.



Community Journalism Future of news

“Do you think newspapers are endangered?” A community journalism perspective

So what if someone asks:  “Do you think animals are endangered?”

There’s literally no answer to that.  We know that mountain gorillas, elephants, rhinos and tigers are critically endangered and we may well see their extinction in our lifetime.

But other animals exist in abundance – rats, rabbits, dogs, deer and hundreds of others.

And that’s the problem with the question newspaper people are asked so often:  “Do you think newspapers are endangered?”

Here’s your answer for the next time someone asks: “Depends.”

And mostly, it depends on the size of the market.  Metropolitan dailies are in a world of hurt because their business model doesn’t work anymore. Large cities are media-saturated and there are countless places to get the news – and countless places for businesses to advertise.

Just over a decade ago metros made money from display advertising, classified advertising and circulation.  The big display accounts realized that there were many other ways to get their message out.  Classified died, killed by Craigslist and similar sites.  And circulation declined in the face of many other places to get the news.  Of course, as circulation declined, advertisers noted the dwindling audience for their commercial messages.

Depressing, huh?  But the metro newspaper is like the endangered animal – don’t assume that because lowland gorillas may die out that we’ll soon have no dogs or deer or rabbits. They exist in superabundance.

And people who would never lump all animals together find it easy to lump all newspapers together.  Lots of folk don’t realize that there are some 7,000 paid circulation weekly papers and around 1,300 daily papers with circulations less than 25,000 in the U.S.

So that’s around 8,300 community newspapers with a circulation of more than 45 million readers. Counting the pass-along rate (the number of people who actually read the paper, as opposed to the number who purchase it), readership of community newspapers in the U.S. exceeds 150 million a week.

Or take Texas.  Our largest newspaper is the Dallas Morning News, with more than 400,000 circulation.  But the No. 10 paper in circulation, the Lubbock Avalanche Journal, has just over 27,000 circulation.  So obviously, most newspapers in Texas and in the U.S. are community papers.

Community newspapers still dominate in smaller communities.  Rather than just being one voice among many as with their metro brethren, they are often the only game in town.  You want to know what happened at City Council?  Why school taxes are going up? How the local teams are doing? Who was involved in that big wreck on Center Street?  Why the old warehouse burned down? What’s for lunch tomorrow at your kid’s elementary school?  Check out the community paper – because you won’t find it anywhere else.

One rural publisher, in a speech to a journalism conference, put it this way:  “To our readers, we are not the newspaper, we are their newspaper. Down the block at Rogers Mini Stop, we sell more than a hundred papers every week. If our press run is late we get frantic calls from the Rogers family. They have a store full of irate customers who want their papers now…. We all know the traditional reasons — the little stories that never would be considered ‘news’ anyplace else. Our readers really care about those things.”

So when someone asks why newspapers are dying, explain that they are talking about a small – if highly visible – part of newspaper journalism.  Most papers are community papers, not metros.

And we’re doing quite well, thank you.

Ask an Expert Questions and Answers FOI

Can officials routinely wait 10 days to respond to my records requests?

Question: City officials routinely wait 10 days on all my open records requests, even when those records are easily accessible. Is that a violation of the Texas open records laws?

Answer: The Texas Public Information Act (552.221) does indeed give officials 10 days to produce a document “if it is in active use or in storage.” But otherwise, the law stipulates that the record shall be produced “promptly.” The law leaves no doubt about what that means: “An officer for public information of a governmental body shall promptly produce public information for inspection, duplication, or both on application by any person to the officer.  In this subsection, “promptly” means as soon as possible under the circumstances, that is, within a reasonable time, without delay.”

For city officials who want to quibble about the definition of “promptly,” note that the law itself defines the word: “without delay.”

Also, the Attorney General’s Guide to the Public Information Act specifies this on page 22: “’Promptly’ means that a governmental body may take a reasonable amount of time to produce the information, but may not delay. It is a common misconception that a governmental body may wait ten business days before releasing the information. In fact, as discussed above, the requirement is to produce information ‘promptly.’ What constitutes a reasonable amount of time depends on the facts in each case.”


Sports coverage

The traditional sports game story is dead!

When is the last time you waited for the morning newspaper to learn the final scores of last night’s sports action?

Do you anxiously wait for the thump of the newspaper on the front porch to learn if Eric Hosmer went 2-for-4 with three RBIs, or how many strikeouts Adam Wainwright threw in the Cardinals’ most recent victory?

Didn’t think so.

With the advent Twitter, live blogging, dedicated apps for every major and minor sports league, score alerts on smart phones and Apple watches, the traditional sports game coverage story – “the gamer” – is dead.

The final score, the leaders on the stat sheet and sometimes even player and coach reaction is reported in the seconds and minutes after the game. The Twitter feed has become the sports fan’s best friend instead of the random stranger sitting on the next barstool.

This does not mean sports reporting is no longer an integral part of the newspaper or newsroom. It does mean sports editors and reporters need to think differently about the content they create, and the stories they tell.

If your newspaper is still publishing the majority of its sports page with 25-inch play-by-play game stories then it might be time for a content remodel. And this sports page remodel will work at a metro daily with a circulation of 200,000 along with at a small-town weekly with 2,000 copies hitting the street.

I know what you’re thinking: “But how I am going to get all of the names of athletes in the paper? Those names sell papers to the parents and relatives in the market. That’s revenue, especially in small markets.”

You are right. And I am not suggesting to not report the game’s highlights.

I am proposing a way to do it differently.

You have access to the coaches, players and stadiums that Joe Fan does not, so use it: What can a sports reporter provide that fans can’t get on their own? Access. Your coverage should provide Joe Fan access to the players, coaches and team. Go heavy with “notebook” type coverage about players who are trending up and down, and why. Talk to players more, and report what they think about their game or the team’s performance. You have the chance every day to interview the coach — use that access to provide insight to the team and its performance. Fans can’t go up to the coach and players and ask them questions about a certain play, but you can. So do it.

Focus on the big play, moment: Instead of providing a play-by-play recap of the Friday night game, focus on the one big play that changed the game, or possibly the player that hit the winning shot, returned from injury to make a difference in the game, or a player who had a special moment that can’t be found in the box score.

Deliver stats, recaps in an alternative format: In baseball, do a breakout “how they scored” box that provides the play-by-play recap, and allows you to get those all-important names in the paper. For football, break down the scoring by quarters; hockey by periods; soccer by halves. You get the picture. This content should be featured in a graphic format with the analysis or feature post-game coverage.

Three stars of the game: Another great way to get names in the paper outside of 25-inch copy is a breakout “Three Stars” box to highlight three players who made a difference on the stat sheet or with a big play. Use mug shots of the athletes to add a little visual pop.

Look ahead, not back: This coverage model is especially true for weekly newspapers. While providing coverage of the past week’s action in alternative format such as graphic boxes and features, consider focusing the majority of your efforts previewing the coming week’s big games. And, as always, use your website throughout the week after publication days to report final scores, and game highlights right after the game to provide that “daily coverage” from a weekly print publication.

Those are just five examples of thinking differently when reporting and editing your sports coverage.

By moving away from the traditional 25-inch game story and incorporating some of these new elements, you might just hit a home run with your readers.

Professional Development for Journalists

Low- and no-cost professional development for community newspapers

Somewhere, every publisher has a list with a heading something like this: “Stuff We Really Need to Do If We Had the Money and/or the Time.”

It’s frustrating to look at because, as the list-heading says, these items are necessary – but not affordable in terms of money or time.  Probably, both.

And at the head of the list: Professional development of your staff.

It hasn’t been that long ago that professional development was a luxury item for financially successful newspapers.  But that was before newspapers became more than just print-on-paper.  Now we’re trying to reach audiences across various media platforms and new hardware and software and journalistic techniques mean that we always seem to be playing catch-up.

So is training available for community newspapers?  You betcha. But it often involves travel and hotel stays and expensive tuition and time away from the job.

Fortunately, there are lots of training/professional development opportunities for community newspapers – and lots of it is free.  So let’s look at what’s available.

Online training

The downside to online training – as opposed to classes you may attend – is that you have to make time to do it.  It takes self-motivated staffers.  If you suspect that motivation, you may get several people take the training online and to share what they are learning with others.

Let’s look at some free or low-cost training that’ll jump-start your professional development program:

NewsU.  Probably the best-known online training is the Poynter Institute’s News University.  NewsU offers a broad range of online training on everything from reporting to writing to FOI to social media to grammar to sports to video, and lots more.  A few are free. Lots are one hour and cost $29.95.  They are also archived, so you can access them anytime you want to.  Lynda offers the motherlode of online training.  You can get a free 10-day trial to check it out, and subscriptions begin at $25 a month.  Lots of great software and tech training – including photo courses.

The National Press Foundation.  The NPF offers free resources and webinars for any journalist.  Put them on your “check occasionally” list to see what they having coming up. Some are more appropriate for metro journalists, but others are valuable for reporters at community newspapers.

The Reynolds Center for Business Journalism.  The Reynolds Center focuses on the business beat, but some of their workshops relate to broader topic areas.  You’ll find archived workshops online.

The Society of American Business Editors and Writers.  This group offers podcasts on important skills for journalists – you can spend an hour developing skills like using Linked-In as a reporting tool or developing an email newsletter for your newspaper or digital business writing.

Google. Don’t forget one of the best tools you have – asking Google to find you the training you are looking for.  Have a new staff member who needs Photoshop training?  Ask Google, and tell the search engine you want free training:  “free online photoshop tutorials.”  That search term, by the way, netted 2.6 million responses.

Online Media Campus. These online modules offer training in advertising, editorial, technology, management, even revenue generation.  The cost for most is only $35.

Investigative Reporters and Editors. IRE and its sister organization NICAR (National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting) offer all kinds of seminars and webinars for your reporters who want to deep-dive into investigative reporting.  You have to join IRE first, but after you do, the organization offers lots of training and other resources free.

The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.  The Knight Center has free digital books on journalism you can download (the classic “Web 2.0,” “10 Best Practices in Social Media”).  You can also sign up for free online courses.

DigitalEd.  You can register for live webinars for $39 or view archived webinars for $19. At this writing, available archives include Advanced Social Media Analytics, How to Personalize Your Content for Better Engagement, Learn to Use the Amazing Camera on Your Mobile Phone and more.

Texas Press Association.  The TPA offers online training, including some that are free.

The MulinBlog Online Journalism School.  You probably haven’t heard of this, but it offers online courses in topics like Writing for the Web, Intro to Data Visualization, Audio Slideshow Storytelling, and Social Media Marketing.

The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.  If your staff members need a refresher in Texas open meetings and open records laws, check out one of the FOIFT’s Open Government Seminars.  They are held in various locations around the state and they are reasonably priced at $50.

In-house training

Don’t overlook what you can do in your own newsroom. You can start with a training lunch once every two weeks.  The paper should provide pizza or burgers or salad, and for openers your staff can talk about their training needs.  What do they want to know?  What kinds of software training, for instance, would be valuable.  Do they want to know more about copyright law?  InDesign? Smartphone photography?  Once you know this, you can go to work.  For some things, you may find that your expertise is right there in-house.

And for other areas, you may need to bring in someone.  But don’t assume that “bringing in” means paying a trainer or consultant.  You’d be surprised whom you can Skype in for a half-hour talk.  Some of the country’s top professors and trainers would be willing to talk by Skype to your staff.  All you need is a free Skype account on both ends. Then open a laptop and you have a trainer.

Another great resource that’s free is the Journalist’s Toolbox. This site, sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, is the best collection of resources you’ll find.  Anywhere.  So let’s say, for instance, that you want to beef up your reporting on weather-related stories.  Go to the weather tab on the Toolbox, and you will find literally more than 100 weather-related sites.  And that doesn’t even include covering drought, where you’ll find more than 10 resources just for covering that topic.

Also consider getting workshop leaders from local universities and community colleges.  You may even get a high school English teacher to talk about grammar problems your writers are having.

The resource close to home:  TCCJ

If you’re a Texas newspaper, TCCJ exists to help with training issues.  You know already about our workshops – both two-day and one-day workshops.  All are free, underwritten by the Texas Newspaper Foundation.  TCCJ has held free workshops on iPhone and Android photography, advertising sales, advertising copywriting, advertising design, newspaper management, reporting and writing, sports journalism, media law, FOI, newspaper design, photojournalism, and more.  We announce our workshops on our Facebook site and in emails to our extensive list of Texas journalists.  If you’re not on our email list, just send your name and email address to us at [email protected] and ask to be included.

We also put the PowerPoint presentations from our workshops online at Speaker Deck. You can use anything you find there to do your own in-house workshop.

At TCCJ, we think one of our best training resources is the Center’s Facebook page. We spend a lot of time monitoring the online world for information of interest just to community newspapers.  Then we link to it on that page.  You could literally have an in-house training session where all you did was to look back at our postings over the last couple of weeks and talk about the articles you find there.  In addition to news of the industry, we also post lots of training-related articles – anything from news of an upcoming webinar to an article on how to improve your leads. And if we find something that’ll make you laugh, we post that, too.

And one of our best resources is the phone on the desk at the Center.  If you want to train your staff in something and don’t know where to start?  Call us at 817.257.6551.  If we don’t know, we’ll research it for you.