This is a presentation by Mike Obert, managing partner-sales for Open Look Business Solutions based in Richardson, at the TCCJ Revenue Workshop via Zoom on Aug. 14.
You’d think that on my last day at TCCJ, I would be contemplating some great quotation on press freedom by Thomas Jefferson.
Not even close. Instead, I can’t get one of Dr. Seuss’ best-known lines out of my head: “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”
To be sure, there’s so much about the work of the Center that I will miss – especially my interactions with the best group of community newspaper people in the United States. These last 20 years of interactions with Texas journalists have certainly enriched my life. And it’s especially gratifying to see folk who came to us two decades ago with the ink barely dry on their degrees who have now taken places of leadership at Texas newspapers.
TCCJ was founded as an investment in people. It was a partnership of the Texas Newspaper Foundation and TCU with the goal of investing in the mid-career training of journalists.
Our strategy was to conduct meaningful, practical training sessions in an atmosphere of laughter and fun, and to do it in a way that honored newspeople as professionals. And I believe we succeeded.
Texas newspapers are in the only institutions in their communities that exist to inform citizens and make sure the public’s business is done in public. We’re the only ones providing an open marketplace of opinion and often speaking truth to power. If we weren’t there, there are no backup institutions to fill that community need.
And as important as newspapers are, they are no stronger than the professionals who work there, people who do what they do because they love their work and are passionate about news.
I am excited that even though I am retiring, the work of the Center will go on under the capable leadership of Dan Malone and Kathryn Jones at Tarleton State University. These two are consummate professionals who love this business and the people who make it work. Please support them, and let’s make sure that TCCJ’s best days are yet to come.
And despite Dr. Seuss’ advice, I have shed a few tears because it’s over. But I’m smiling now because I have so many wonderful friends in Texas journalism and because I’m so happy that TCCJ will continue to fulfill its mission.
Darrell Royal was famous for his formula for winning football: You gotta dance with the one what brung you. In football, you have to keep doing what made you good in the first place. If you were undefeated by running the ball, you keep running it in the playoffs.
And that concept works for newspapers, too.
The doom-and-gloom crowd always focus on the “paper” part of the newspaper compound. Paper is a dying medium, they say. And they may be right. But if we’re going to succeed, we have to focus on the first part of that compound – the one what brung us. And that is news.
Newspapers aren’t popular because they’re printed on paper. They grew to popularity because they gave people the news they wanted. Local events. Names. Faces. Calendars. Sports. Opinion. Pictures. Information.
And guess what? Scholarly research confirms what we have always known. A Northwestern University study last year showed that regular reader habit and strong coverage of local news were the key factors in keeping subscribers. But they wondered … was that also true for small news outlets?
So they did a follow-up study on 12 small news outlets. Not surprisingly, they found that the same local news emphasis that causes people to read metros also sends them to your newspaper.
One of the things they found was that the more frequently subscribers connect with you, the more likely they are to hold on to their subscription. Large newspapers realize that even publishing daily isn’t enough, so they have rolled out a number of newsletters to make their brand more valuable for readers.
The takeaway for community newspapers: We have a hot commodity – news. But we can’t just deliver that on paper once a week. We have to be the go-to medium for news in the community every day. At TCCJ, we used to say that you could be a weekly in print but you had to be a daily online. That seems short-sighted now. We can’t just put news up daily on our website – we have to use social media and newsletters to get that news in front of our readers.
Websites assume that readers come to them. But social media and newsletters don’t wait for readers to come to them – they go to the readers.
We still have a commodity readers want. We just have to get the news – branded with our name – in front of readers, and do it more often.
If you’re reading a community newspaper, chances are you are reading what seems to be a dying story format: an unbiased account of the news.
A president who has been overly critical of journalism has driven newspeople on the national level to disregard time-honored canons of objectivity. In years past, we would have reported what a president said or did, and what others said about him. Now many think they have to put a label on the newsmaker – calling the president a racist instead of just reporting his words and actions and letting the reader decide whether that represented racism.
But what about readers? Does it matter to them?
Surveys say it does:
- A recent Knight Foundation study reported that 66 percent of Americans said most news media do not do a good job of separating fact from opinion. Back in 1984, 42 percent held that view.
- On a media trust scale with scores ranging from a low of zero to a high of 100, the average American scores a 37.
- Unfortunately, media trust has itself become a partisan issue, with Democrats largely trusting the media and Republicans distrusting the media.
The recent flurry of news mergers and buyouts also concerns the public. More than 9 in 10 Americans in a Gallup survey are very (68 percent) or somewhat (26 percent) concerned that corporate views would influence coverage if a large company purchased their local news organization.
When you talk with readers about these issues, remember that they don’t see the media landscape like we journalists do. They look at newspapers, TV news, online news and other outlets and just see journalism. We see hard news, news analysis, news advocacy, infotainment and lots more.
So tell your readers that you’re committed to presenting the news fairly and objectively – to airing all important sides of stories. And that no matter what they may see on MSNBC or Fox or some national newspaper or news show, your newspaper is committed to the best traditions of objectivity, neutrality and fairness.
An old definition of public relations is “doing right and telling people about it.” At community newspapers, we’re committed to doing right. But we need to be more about the business of telling people about it.
(If you were watching ABC during prime time during June, you may have recognized a Texas reporter, Kathy Cruz of the Hood County News. Kathy was featured in all four episodes of “The Last Defense.” The story below appears in the July Publisher’s Auxiliary, published by the National Newspaper Association, and is used by permission of Pub Aux.)
In Gatesville, Texas, Darlie Lynn Routier spends every day pretty much as she has for last 21 years in her women’s death row cell awaiting her execution by lethal injection.
In the small newsroom of the Hood County News in Granbury, 87 miles away, reporter Kathy Cruz often finds her mind wandering back to her two-year-long re-investigation of the murder case that sent Routier to death row.
Kathy couldn’t dismiss her lingering doubts about Routier’s conviction for murdering her two sons. So she spent her days off and many nights and weekends following the story – talking with lawyers and investigators and forensic experts, trying to determine for herself if justice had been done.
Her book, “Dateline Purgatory: Examining the Case that Sentenced Darlie Routier to Death,” (TCU Press, 2015) explores that murder investigation and trial and shows why she thinks an innocent Texas mom has spent more than two decades on death row.
And now, a new ABC documentary series co-produced by Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis has taken up Kathy’s crusade in a seven-part prime time docu-series that explores Routier’s case and that of Julius Jones, who is awaiting execution in Oklahoma.
The parts of the series “The Last Defense” that examine Routier’s conviction borrow heavily from the investigative work done by Cruz.
Investigating a 22-year-old murder while holding down a full-time job as city and county government reporter at the Hood County News was a daunting task even for Kathy, who’s a self-confessed workaholic.
Kathy’s investigation began when she was working on another writing project and the Routier case – which she remembered from years before – popped into her mind. Kathy stopped writing and began to Google the murders of Routier’s two children. Like many before her, Kathy couldn’t get the gruesome crime scene out of her mind.
Several days later she emailed Routier on death row and asked for an interview – still with no specific project in mind. To her surprise, Darlie Routier agreed to see her. The result was a two-hour prison interview – the first one Routier had granted in four years — that only further piqued Kathy’s curiosity.
“I had no idea where I was headed with this,” Kathy said. “I just knew that this case dealt with many of the Texas criminal justice issues that I had dealt with before, and I wanted to know more.”
Kathy talked to her publisher, Jerry Tidwell, who was intrigued with her investigation and encouraged her to pursue the story.
And so began her year-long investigation into the Routier case, a project pursued at night and on weekends and during vacation time dedicated to her research. She approached the story as a journalist would, poring over police and court records and talking with people who believed Darlie was innocent and others who defended the jury’s verdict.
Kathy was determined to take readers along on her investigation – she wrote it in reporter’s notebook style, sharing the circumstances of her interviews and investigations. As she looked into the murders, she became increasingly convinced that Texas had sentenced an innocent woman to death.
“I still can’t imagine being convicted of something you did not do and having your life taken away from you,” Kathy said.
During her year of book research, she continue to cover city and county government in Hood County. And when her beat stories were filed and the twice-weekly Hood County News went to bed, Kathy turned to her work on the Routier investigation.
“The Darlie book came out three years ago and I’m still exhausted from it,” Kathy said.
Despite the book deadlines, Kathy continued to turn out award-winning news, features and investigative pieces for the News. She has won a wall-full of state and national reporting awards and has several times been selected Journalist of the Year by regional press associations.
Kathy isn’t the only writer who has re-examined the Routier case. More than a dozen books have been written about the murders, some arguing for her innocence and others for her guilt. One author who wrote a book defending the jury’s guilty verdict has since recanted her position and now believes Routier is innocent.
The case itself has a made-for-TV plotline. The brutal murders of young Devon and Damon Routier in the early morning hours of June 6, 1996, put their mother at the heart of one of the most notorious murder cases in modern Texas history — despite her own throat having been slashed to within 2 millimeters of her carotid artery.
Routier claimed that she and her children were attacked by an unknown intruder as they lay sleeping downstairs, where they had fallen asleep watching television.
Routier’s husband, Darin, and their 8-month-old baby were asleep upstairs and were unharmed. Darin Routier said he woke up when he heard a crashing noise and his wife’s screams.
Darlie Routier called 911 at 2:30 a.m. and told police that her home had been broken into and an intruder had stabbed her children and her. Police said that one of her boys had been stabbed with such force that the knife nicked the concrete slab beneath the carpet.
Blood soaked the light-colored carpet and there was a trail of blood through the kitchen. Darlie Routier’s white Victoria’s Secret nightshirt was saturated in blood. She said it was only when she caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror while on the phone with 911 that she realized the blood was her own and that her throat had been slashed.
Dallas County prosecutors rejected her story about the intruder, believing that she had staged the whole thing, including her own injuries.
The documentary series casts doubt on the conviction, drawing heavily from Kathy’s book and interviews she did with the documentary team.
Aida Leisenring, a New York attorney who helped to develop and executive produced “The Last Defense,” said Kathy’s book “made significant contributions” to the documentary’s research on Routier.
“[Kathy] is featured quite a lot in ‘The Last Defense,’” Leisenring said. “She has the ability to understand legal issues and translate them for laypeople.”
Leisenring said Kathy was able to “address the intricate mechanics of legal issues while also seeing the bigger picture.”
“We used her a lot throughout the series – and it was all too easy because her quotes were phenomenal,” Leisenring said. “Her knowledge was exceptional.”
“The Last Defense” has been airing on ABC stations since June 12.
Six women have been executed in Texas since the state resumed the death penalty in 1976 and five other women besides Routier are currently on death row awaiting execution.
If your new year’s resolution involves improving your writing, here’s a good place to start – an idea you may not have considered:
It sounds almost counterintuitive.
Reporters who want to become better writers often think in terms of classes or workshops or coaching by veteran writers. And all of those are good things. But maybe one of the best ways to improve your writing is just to read.
But don’t all journalists read a lot? Actually, no. We do read reports and meeting minutes and the results of Google searches. And of course, our own newspaper.
That’s a start. But are you reading some of the nation’s top journalists and other really good writers? How often do you read something and say, “Wow. That’s really good. I wish I could write like that.”
It has never been as easy as today for writers everywhere to read the best journalism produced in the world. So let’s spend a few minutes looking at why this is so important and how you can improve your writing, just by reading.
The first step is expanding the amount of great writing you are exposed to every day. The best way to do that is through social media. On Facebook, follow The New York Times and The Washington Post. On email, sign up for newsletters from these papers that will deliver a sampling of great writing to your inbox every day. And on social media, follow some important news feeds for community journalists. TCCJ has compiled a list for you here. Click on several of these that look interesting. In a few minutes on email and social media, you can have an exciting sampling of great writing coming to your computer every day. Often, you’ll just skim through without reading anything – but if you read three or four great news stories or feature stories or depth journalism pieces a week, your writing will definitely improve over the next few months.
Just by reading. Nothing else.
Of course, you can maximize the experience by collecting great sentences or great leads or passages of description you admire. Within a few months, you would have, say, a collection of maybe 20 leads you love.
Then, when you’re stuck, go back and read through that list. Find something you can model your own lead on.
That isn’t plagiarism, unless you copy word for word.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, schools taught writing by what they called “copywork.” Students just copied from books acknowledged to be great writing. It considered an effective way to teach students handwriting as well as grammar, punctuation and syntax. Good writing is more than copying, but it can be a great first step toward improving your style – sort of like using training wheels when you are learning to ride your bike. Copywork meant that students had to read good writing and then copy it – and perhaps absorb the style and feel of well-written prose.
You’re not going to copy great writing, but you should at least be reading it.
When you read good journalism – not necessarily study it, but just consume it as a reader, you’ll get a better feel for what to write about. One of the best places to get story ideas is from great stories. You’ll see all kinds of articles you can localize for your paper. Or at least the article you read will spark an idea that you can develop for one of your own.
How can you ever write great prose unless you read it? Sports psychologists have urged basketball players to practice free throws in their heads, imaging themselves with perfect form, launching a shot that swished the net. And those who practiced in their minds were as successful as those who practiced in the gym. The pictures in our heads help to determine our performance – so we need to get lots of “pictures” of good writing into our minds.
And while you should read great journalism, you shouldn’t limit yourself to journalism. Read novels and non-fiction, too. You can learn a lot about descriptive writing and dialogue from a well-crafted novel.
The novelist William Faulkner came to the same conclusion about the value of reading: “Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.”
Also consider poetry. There’s no better way to develop a feel for language and meter and word-choice than poetry. Go to a used book store, where you can find a poetry anthology that some poor undergraduate probably paid more than $100 for. You can probably get it for less than $5. Then try to read a couple of poems a week – maybe even memorize some lines that you especially like.
Novelist Stephen King has said that “the real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing.” He’s right. Journalists tend to be of a practical turn of mind, so we think of writing improvement in terms of workshops and classes. But don’t overlook settling back with a good magazine article or a well-written news story or a novel – even a poem – as a way of improving your journalistic writing style.
When it comes to advertising sales, we’re still stuck in the 1980s.
How do we know? Because we’re still trying to sell space for ads in the newspaper – and we’re trying to sell to folk who don’t necessarily believe that print ads are effective.
So that means your ad sales team will often need to convince clients that newspapers can be effective for getting their message out.
So is this really a problem for newspapers? You bet.
A recent Borrell study asked marketers what types of media were most effective. The responses were social media, broadcast TV, search, email marketing, cable TV – newspapers are way down the list.
The Borrell study says that local advertising will increase next year, but the increases will go to online, local TV, outdoor and telemarketing. The study predicts a 10 percent drop for newspaper ads.
That’s at least partly because we are not evangelists for the power or print ads to actually sell people stuff.
So do your ad reps know – and share – information like this?
- ●There’s a direct correlation between non-subscribers receiving a newspaper and how much they spend. When non-subscribers get a newspaper, they make more purchases and spend more money.
- ●Newspapers are trusted. Consumers consider an ad in a newspaper to be more believable – 36 percent of adults surveyed found newspapers ads trustworthy, as opposed to 8 percent for TV and 15 percent for internet.
- ●Consumers are more likely to act on information in newspapers and their websites regarding products and services.
- ●People actually pay more attention to newspaper ads. You don’t tune them out or go to the bathroom while they are on or fast forward through them like you do with TV.
- ●Other ads, like in social media or TV or radio, are intrusive. Shoppers today want to seek out ads on their own.
- ●Your ad placement in a newspaper lets you target your intended audience.
- ●Newspapers are the best at reaching seniors, retirees and middle-income households – often the customers most sought after by many businesses.
- ●And it’s not just that people read your ads, but the people you want to read your ads are reading them – the influencers in your community. Influencers are the “information hounds” who are more heavily represented in the audiences of print and online newspapers than in the audiences of social media and TV. What these folk say, matters. And they are reading newspapers and their ads.
- ●Newspaper ads work, and that’s what advertisers want. You can say what you want about overall circulation, but the fact is that 79 percent of newspaper readers take action on an ad sometime during the month.
Especially with younger ad clients, we have to convince them that advertising in print really does work. A good way to do that is to put together an effective advertising pitchbook, which includes information about your newspaper, your rate card, information like that above on the effectiveness of print, and testimonials (with pictures) of satisfied advertising clients. For an overview of successful pitchbooks, see this presentation by TCCJ’s Chuck Nau.
The tornadoes in Van Zandt County last weekend are a reminder of a sobering fact of life for Texas newspapers: When it comes to covering tornadoes, it’s more a matter of when than if.
An average of 1,224 tornadoes touch down every year in the United States, according to a tornado tracking study that reflects the years 1991 through 2015. Texas leads the nation with an average of 146.7. Kansas is next with 92.4, and our Tornado Alley neighbor Oklahoma has 65.4.
May is the peak month for Texas tornadoes – we average 44 during this month alone.
And obviously, when a tornado has just stuck your community or county, it’s too late to figure out how best to mobilize your coverage.
So here’s a guide for your newsroom, to help you plan for when tornadoes strike:
The first thing to do is to talk out the coverage. Everyone should sit down and talk about what you would do and who would do it. And if this is all you do, you’re already ahead of the game. Make a list of what you want to do, and who will do it.
Your tornado coverage team should include everyone. When a tornado hits, there should be no division between advertising and editorial – it’s all hands on deck.
Staff members should also talk with their families to explain that they will have to leave and cover the aftermath, assuming everyone in the family is safe. All staff members should think through what their families will do following a tornado — and make sure they know that this is a major news story that has to be covered.
Maybe you already have a plan – but this is the time to dust it off and go through it with everyone. If you didn’t do the plan within the past three months, it probably needs updating, and every individual staff member needs to know what everyone else is doing.
Next, you have to decide what your coverage philosophy will be. During a tornado, everyone is desperate for information, and your newspaper can become the go-to source for that information.
The first thing you have to do is to decide that you may be a weekly in print, but during this crisis you must go where the people are – and never ask them to wait for information. If you got it, share it.
If you’re going where people are, you’re going be on social media, probably Facebook. Remember: Absolutely nobody – not one single individual in your community – is saying “I can’t wait till the paper comes out on Thursday so I can find out what really happened.”
When the tornado is bearing down on your town, people are on radio and TV. Once it hits, they will be looking to social media to find out what happened. As soon as it’s safe, your staff should be out taking pictures and filing social media updates.
It won’t take long for your photos and information to be shared, and you should see your Facebook Likes spike immediately. If the local Methodist church has opened its fellowship hall for people who are out of their houses, share that on Facebook, along with a picture. If the police chief has announced a curfew, video that announcement and share it. You might even want to use the Facebook Live feature to interview local businesses who are cleaning up.
Some publishers will balk at “giving away” all those photos and information on the tornado. But remember, people don’t care about this stuff several days later, when your paper comes out. What can happen is that readers come to see your newspaper as the one indispensable local information source, and that should carry over to print circulation. If all you do is to collect information and photos for your publication day, people see your entire paper as irrelevant because there’s no new information and no photos they haven’t seen many times on Facebook.
But you also have to be thinking about what you’ll put in that print edition. You may run a roundup story where you summarize the news of the tornado, but your print edition should be mainly follow stories that give additional information that hasn’t been shared on social media.
These follow stories should tell about rebuilding efforts and especially tell the human stories of victims and the first-responder heroes who helped them. Your staff covering the storm should always have, in the back of their minds, the need for these follow stories – so have a board in the office or a place online where ideas for these stories can be shared. And not just reporters – your ad reps may have a great idea on a business that’s rebuilding.
And as these follow stories start coming together, of course, tell your social media audience what’s coming. You can build anticipation for the depth information, the photo stories and the features that your regular print edition will include.
Also following a tornado, keep on the lookout for investigative angles that involve emergency preparedness or even building codes. Here’s a story about construction flaws in Moore, Oklahoma, schools that ran after the Moore tornadoes in 2013.
During times of emergency like this, people see the reality of what we’ve been telling them for years – that our newspaper, in print, online and in social media, is the best source of local news. One reporter who covered a tornado for a community newspaper in Alabama put it this way: “In a crisis like this, people did learn that we were the first place to go for news. We were told that by members of the National Guard that they were following our tweets to figure out where they needed to deploy.”
Unfortunately, much of your coverage will involve people who have experienced significant loss. The managing editor of The Oklahoman, which has had a lot of unfortunate experience in covering tornadoes, offers this advice about interviewing disaster victims:
*Teach your reporters and editors about how to approach and interview victims. Remind them during the coverage.\Emphasize that victims must be treated with dignity and respect.
*Victims should be approached but allowed to say no. If the answer is no, the reporter should leave a card or number so victims can call back later. Oftentimes, the best stories come this way.
*Each victim is an individual and must be treated that way, not just as part of an overall number.
*Little things count. Call victims back to verify facts and quotes. Return photos (if possible, hire runners to get and return photos). Emphasize writing “Profiles of Life” about the victims, instead of the usual stories about how they died.
*Try calling funeral homes or representatives first to connect with a family member. In most cases, victims’ relatives wanted to talk when they realized that the reporter was writing a “Profile of Life.” Some of these led to bigger stories, too. Establish policies that affect your coverage.
*The Oklahoman reporters covered public memorial services for the victims of the bombing and tornado, but not private funerals.
*Don’t re-run the bloody images on anniversaries and key dates. However, consider showing comparison pictures of destruction with current ones on the recovery’s success.
There are a lot of resources to which you can turn to beef up your coverage. Of course, after the disaster hits, it’s too late to familiarize yourself with these. So look them over now, and discuss them when you have your staff meeting to plan for coverage.
After the initial safety concerns, people’s next questions are typically about insurance. The Insurance Information Institute can answer your questions and provide subject matter experts and resources to explain the insurance and economic implications the tornado.
Phone numbers may well be dispersed among reporters. Be sure there is a master list available on your computer system, a list that includes police, fire department, county law enforcement, hospitals, power companies, water office, animal control, towing companies, funeral homes and the county coroner, churches and other relief centers, and the like.
The Journalist’s Toolbox weather page offers lots of links and resources to storms, assistance programs and even apps that can help in your coverage.
One more thing: If a major storm hits your city, you will be getting requests from outside media for interviews with your reporters, for photos, and for information on what’s happening. Decide in advance what your policy will be, and designate someone to field these requests.
Much of the preparation you do for tornadoes can also come in handy for major fires, floods and other disasters. Plan now, and hope you never have to put those plans into motion.
International visitors are often amazed with the number of cereals available in American supermarkets. Wikipedia lists almost 400 brands – and that’s counting Cheerios, for instance, as one brand, not the 20 different Cheerios varieties you can buy.
Do you really need to be able to choose types of Cheerios that range from oat cluster to apple cinnamon to banana nut to yogurt burst? Probably not, but each brings a little different taste. We would lose something by doing away with all the different flavors and returning to just plain ol’ Cheerios. Who’d want to lose all that taste nuance?
But what we wouldn’t do with flavors, we do with language. The trend now is to level everything out. Brank Bruni of The New York Times pointed out the latest casualty this week: who.
Now you hear TV talking heads talking about the Alabama governor that resigned and the passenger that United removed from its flight. We’ve forgotten the pronoun that acknowledges us as people, as human beings.
Bruni laments this trend in his column, and then offers an explanation that goes far beyond grammar:
How did we get here? Why is “who” on the ropes? One of my theories is that in this hypercasual culture of ours, we’re so petrified of sounding overly fussy that we’ve swerved all the way to overly crass.
And my fear is that there’s a metaphor here: something about the age of automation, about the disappearing line between humans and machines. The robots are coming. Maybe we’re killing off “who” to avoid the pain of having them demand — and get — it.
Whether or not that’s the reason, we are certainly watching our language change. And for those of us who object, we’re labeled with the ultimate pejorative: prescriptivists.
We evil prescriptivists believe that language standards mean something. For that, we’re labeled as linguistic purists. Or worse: old-fashioned, traditionalist, grammar geeks and fuddy-duddies.
And how did we earn this scorn? By saying that words mean things. By holding that they is plural and should not refer to a singular noun. By rejecting dangling modifiers as the norm, with no concern for the reader. By standing firm against inserting – or leaving out – commas willy-nilly, disregarding the effect on a sentence’s meaning (it’s the Let’s eat Grandma vs. the Let’s eat, Grandma question).
We criticize the president for his misstatements of fact. That’s because we believe that presidential statements should accurately reflect reality. But grammar is not a dilettante’s playground – it’s a verbal representation of reality; when we drop time-honored standards, we’re saying that our language does not need to line up with the reality it represents.
We’d never want just one flavor of Cheerios. They are different for a reason. Just like who and that, and they and he or she.