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.

Our core (55 and over) readership now hanging out on Facebook

At first, we thought our caller just wanted to tell us about Thanksgiving at his house, but before long we realized he really wanted to make a point about Texas newspapers.

Here’s how it went down (shared with his permission):

“I left the football game and went back to the dining room for pecan-pie seconds and a cup of coffee. The women in our family were talking in small groups, and pretty soon I realized something different this year – they weren’t just catching each other up on family news, they were talking about what they had read or posted on Facebook.

“I actually counted five iPhones or iPads in the hands of those nine women. All the conversation was Facebook-related.  And not one of the nine women was under 45 – the average age was probably late 50s. So I decided to stop for a little market research.  I asked how many of them had “liked” a newspaper on Facebook.

“Not a single one had. One even asked: ‘Newspapers?  Are they on Facebook?’”

That scene, from a Thanksgiving gathering in North Texas, highlights a problem faced by many newspapers in the Lone Star State.  A few years ago, we at the Center were saying that we needed to develop a Facebook presence to reach younger readers.  But that has changed. Many young people are abandoning Facebook for Instagram and other social media.  And the largest growth demographic on Facebook is our core newspaper readership:  people 55 and over.

People used to get together and talk at church or a civic club functions or on the porch or over the back fence. All those areas have declined, and now middle-aged and senior adults keep up with their families and friends on Facebook.  As our editor friend above discovered, people who never saw themselves as computer-users are spending hours a day in front of a screen.

And where people are gathering, that’s where newspapers need to be.

But back to the North Texas Thanksgiving gathering:  Why didn’t those Facebook users know about newspapers on Facebook?  People normally discover new Facebook sites when other people share content that interests them.  And that content is only rarely hard news.  We might read the hard news story about the city council meeting, but we’re much more likely to share the photo or video or feature that intrigues us.

How do you create more Facebook followers for your newspaper?

For starters, we have to realize that Facebook ain’t print.  Print is passive; we print it, readers buy it.  The best analogy may be to a church on Sunday morning.  People sit in pews and listen to a pastor preach and a choir sing.  There are a few “performers” and a large audience.

Facebook is much more like a large Christmas party.  There is no single speaker – the party consists of small groups talking and sharing among themselves.  And people leave one group and join another.  Everybody talks, though some more than others.  People judge the quality of the party on the amount of engagement they have had with other people.

Newspapers are about publishing; Facebook is about engagement.  We increase engagement by asking for it.  A newspaper story about the weather will report where the storm hit and what the damage was.  Sources will be quoted.  But on Facebook, you talk about the storm as it approaches, while it’s going on, and after it’s over.  You report authoritative information, but you also ask people to tell you what they have experienced.  And you ask people to post pictures.  You let them ask questions of you, and questions of each other.  You interact with your audience, and they interact with other readers and with you.

And there are other techniques to boost your following: linking to other sources of information, posting pictures and videos, and encouraging people to respond.  We also need to promote our Facebook page in our print product.

Every Facebook user is looking for interesting content to repost.  And that interesting content will make its way through your community like interesting news at the Christmas party.

The Center Is always looking for great techniques that Texas newspapers have used to boost their Facebook engagement.  Let us know what’s working for you.

Community newspapers: An important part of Thanksgiving table-talk

At many Thanksgiving tables, family members take turns sharing what they are most thankful for.

The items listed are pretty typical, from the wise guy’s “I’m thankful I’m not the turkey” to appreciation directed at everyone from God to teachers to those in the armed services.

But nobody ever says they are thankful for the electric company or the gas company or the water and sewer department.  Those utilities are important – indeed, necessary to the Thanksgiving experience – but their service is so integral to our lives that they go unnoticed.

Newspapers are a lot like that.

No one will say they’re thankful for the local newspaper on Thursday (unless, maybe, they are employed by that paper). And that’s because we have made ourselves essential to the functioning of our communities.

  • We bought Thanksgiving dinner after scanning the local grocery ads for the best buys.
  • We schedule dinner around parades and football because we saw the starting time in the paper.
  • Our table-talk is informed by the news and sports and features we read in the paper.
  • Hanging on the refrigerator is a picture from a school play or a high school football game, clipped from the newspaper.
  • We talk about the black Friday or brown Thursday sales we plan to hit, and somebody asks when the stores open.  The reply:  “Let’s check the paper after lunch.”
  • Two brothers-in-law get into an argument about an upcoming liquor election before grandma admonishes them not to argue at the table.  Both were basing their positions on stories they read in last week’s paper.
  • Someone mentions that the neighbors have something to be thankful for – they found their lost dog when someone responded to their classified ad in the paper.
  • The hostess brings out the desserts and the hands-down crowd favorite is the pumpkin pie cobbler. Of course.  She got the recipe from last week’s newspaper.

The community newspaper has become as much a part of life as the electric company — so woven into the fabric of our week that people are unaware of the source of much of the information that powers their lives.

But there’s one significant difference between newspapers and utilities – the utilities don’t speak truth to power and hold public officials accountable and analyze budgets and ask hard questions.

Newspapers do.  Week after week.

So do newspapers resent being left out of the round of thankful-fors at the dinner table?  Not at all. We know our role is to support the life of the community by providing news, information and entertainment.

We think we do that well.  And we’re thankful for the opportunity.

Facebook offers a great opportunity to grab new readers

For busy newspaper people, information about social media is like information about Obamacare – there’s so much, and it’s so complex, that it’s easy to ignore all of it.

Social media didn’t begin as primarily media for news – they were ways for people to connect and share what was going on in their lives. Like sharing over the back fence, a lot of the information was trivial, and Facebook and Twitter got a bad rap (“If I see one more picture of someone’s meal at a restaurant….” or “Who wants to look at that many cute cat videos?”)

So it’s understandable if some publishers and editors don’t realize that social media have become genuine news platforms – of the 64 percent of adults who use Facebook, for instance, 47 percent get at least some of their news there.

That’s way too many potential news consumers to ignore.

So who’s on Facebook, surfing their news feed and just waiting to connect with your newspaper?

  • 83 percent of people between 18 and 29
  • 77 percent of people between 30 and 49
  • 52 percent of people between 50 and 64
  • 32 percent of people over 65

Or looking at the big picture, 67 percent of all Internet users are also on a social networking site such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram or Tumblr.

We need to be there for the same reason you’d like to sell your newspaper at Walmart – that’s where the people are.

Some of the recent research into news and social networks reminds us of important points that all newspapers need to consider:

On Facebook, people are drawn to the news and pictures, not to your newspaper.  People won’t look at something just because an editor said it was important. If the picture is engaging, if the news looks interesting, they’ll read it.  If it’s another meeting story illustrated by a photo of a bunch of balding, middle-aged white guys sitting in a council chamber, forget it.  They won’t read it just because your paper says it’s important. A recent study asked Facebook users why they clicked on news story links – 20 percent said it was because the story was published by a news organization they trusted, but 70 percent said it was because the story looked interesting.

This is news judgment on steroids.  We already know that dull procedural stories that don’t relate to real people tend not to be read in print.  And if that’s true for your print product, where you can still reach your news junkies, it’s doubly true online.

Your news headline is important in luring readers.  On Facebook, which would draw traffic?  “Council votes to purchase new fire equipment”? Or “New fire truck will cut response times to local fires”? And should the photo be of the council members talking or the firefighters climbing onto the new truck?

We need to work hard for Facebook “Likes.”  Make your page more interactive.  Ask questions.  Promote involvement.  Use lots of local-interest photos – they are more likely to get shared by your followers and thus help you pick up new followers. Run contests and offer prizes. 

Remember, Facebook is not your newspaper presented in another medium.  It’s a different approach to news, characterized by much more interactivity.  When people like an article in your newspaper, they may tell someone.  And rarely, they might even give a copy of your newspaper to a friend and suggest they read the article. 

But on Facebook, someone with 500 friends can share that article with all 500.  If you run a photo of the cheerleaders at this Friday’s game, and one of the cheermoms is on Facebook (chances are, all of them are) and shares your photo on her news feed, it could end up with an audience of thousands more than your newspaper could ever reach. We need to think in terms of news and photos and videos that people will want to pass on – in effect, to become our co-publishers.

For those editors and publishers who are still social media newbies, the best recommendation is to get onto Facebook yourself. You’ll never reach that audience until you are familiar with it.  Just lurk, if you want to, or actively participate.  Also, check out some newspapers who do it well.  Here’s a list of some of the best facebook pages for newspapers. 

Lessons learned: Community papers can produce outstanding investigations

Last year’s winner of the grand prize in the Dallas Bar Association’s prestigious Philbin Awards came from the CBS affiliate in Dallas/Fort Worth.  Before that, the Dallas Morning News and the Fox affiliate in Dallas were also winners.  But going back to 2005, among those bastions of metro journalism, the name of another newspaper appears twice.

It’s the Hood County News in Granbury.

Kathy Cruz, a reporter for the News, has been named the grand prize winner of the Philbin Awards for her investigative series Routier Revisited and Justice for All, written for the News and for the Center.  Both series ran originally in the Hood County News and were made available by the Center for use in Texas community newspapers.

The Philbin Awards are given annually by the Dallas Bar Association to honor the best legal reporting in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.  Judges considered educational value, accuracy, resourcefulness, as well as the journalist’s initiative in pursuing the story and the story’s contribution to public debate.

For Kathy, the Philbin is the latest in a long string of honors she has won at the News.  She is truly one of the outstanding reporters in Texas community journalism and indeed, in community journalism throughout the nation.

But the most exciting thing for us at the Center – and for all of us in community journalism – is that this award shows that community newspapers can excel in groundbreaking investigative reporting.  We don’t have to leave that work to our colleagues at the metros – a community paper that encourages enterprising reporting and stands behind its reporters when they ruffle feathers of public officials, can produce outstanding investigations.

Admittedly, it helps if you have a reporter like Kathy Cruz who’s willing to put in the long hours it can take to get the story.

But sometimes, these reporters just need encouragement from their publishers and editors.

Which brings us to Kathy’s publisher, Jerry Tidwell.  Jerry understands that sometimes great investigations – the kind of work that’s genuinely in the public interest – don’t always win public approval. Kudos to Jerry and to many other publishers around Texas who support good journalism and who believe that truth-telling ultimately pays benefits for the newspaper.

Kathy will take home the grand prize of $1,500 for winning the Philbin, but we believe that Texas community journalism is one of the winners, too.  We have demonstrated that we can make a difference with our reporting and that we can go toe-to-toe with the state’s major media in these awards.

Kathy’s series are free to any community newspaper in Texas to use in the paper or online, or both.  Click here for her Justice for All series and here for her Routier Revisited series.

Why every community journalist needs a Twitter account – and where to start

The caller let me know in the first minute that he had “an off-the-wall question.”

No sweat.  The Center gets lots of those, I said. 

“So I am just trying to figure out if I should get onto Twitter,” he said. “I can’t see any reason that I need to.”

And as good journalists do, I asked him first to tell me why he hesitated to enter the Twitterverse. He had several solid reasons:

  1. Twitter isn’t really big in his town.  He didn’t know if there would be an audience for his tweets.
  2. He said he was stretched too thin already.  This was just one more thing to spend time on.
  3. And besides, he said, he doesn’t want to waste time reading small-talk or random comments or getting links to pictures of a dish someone had just cooked.

I told him those weren’t off-the-wall.  We hear those objections frequently.  And then I got his permission to pass along the advice I was about to give him.

Twitter isn’t big in a lot of small markets.  But it’s bigger than you may think, and you’ll never fully appreciate what may be going on in Twitter until you begin to participate.  Remember also that it’s not just the number of people who tweet in your community – there may be only a few, but those few may turn out to be great news sources.

On Twitter, you can be both a message-generator and a message-receiver.  You can send out links to stories and you can share news as it breaks, so that you develop the reputation of being the go-to news source in your town.  High school football games, fires, wrecks, city council and school board – all should be tweeted as they are in progress.  Let your Twitter audience know you are there, and share the big news – and of course, tell them they’ll get more details on your website and in the newspaper. One good way to encourage Twitter use among your readers is to put the Twitter handle of every writer either under your byline or at the conclusion of an article (something like Twitter: @ClarkKent). Your Twitter handle should also be on your business card.  And run some house ads that invite readers to follow your writers on Twitter.

My caller reminded me that he may have only a handful of people who would follow him.  Of course, some of that handful may be community leaders and important news sources — people among whom you want to build your reputation of being on top of the news.  And even if there are only a few, that number will definitely grow – and as new people get onto Twitter, they will be looking for local people to follow.

Remember, Twitter isn’t only for transmitting; it’s also for receiving.  Let’s say you can find only a few people in your town on Twitter – but one is a high school coach, one is on the school board, one is in county government, one is a pastor, one is a teacher and one is a hospital administrator.  Wow.  If that’s all you followed, you would be following six local opinion leaders.  And if each one tweeted only once a week, that’s maybe six news leads you wouldn’t otherwise have.

What about the time issue? Anything can eat your time – ESPN, mystery novels, video games, your garden. The reason most of us dedicated Twitter users spend time at the site is because we’re getting something of benefit.  We’re learning.  We’re getting ideas we didn’t have before.

He protested:  “But I have seen Twitter feeds.  There’s so much there.  I know this one guy who can never read through his feed for even that day!”

“So?  Do you feel guilty if you walk into a bookstore and see a shelf of great new books and you don’t immediately read them all?  Do you feel guilty seeing 20 new books on the shelf and leaving the store without buying even one, knowing that you will never read even a fraction of what’s there?

“Of course not.  If something really grabs you or looks like a topic you need right now, you get the book.  Otherwise, you don’t read any of them.  That’s the way Twitter works – you scan and skim and read what interests you.”

Actually, I explained, Twitter is a lot like having a good friend who works at that bookstore.  You explain to your friend that you like Dan Brown-type fiction and Civil War history.  You don’t care for nutrition books or world religion or science fiction, no matter how well they are selling.  You tell the clerk you will come by the store once a day, and if he has any Dan Brownish-type stuff or Civil War history, to put them out on a table and you’ll look them over.  And that’s what you do – just because the guy pulled a book on the battle of Gettysburg doesn’t mean you will buy it or read it.  Some you look at, some you buy, some you actually read.

That’s the way Twitter works. You get an account and you find people and organizations whose opinions or information interest you.  You scan your Twitter feed and follow up on what you find interesting or potentially useful.

If you miss a day, you don’t have to try to catch up.  Does it bother you if you haven’t been into the bookstore for several weeks, knowing that there are great new books there that would be great reads for you as a reporter?  No.  You know there will  be even more new books there when you finally stop by to spend some time.

Where do you start?  Just sign on to Twitter – establish your account.  Then find some people to follow. 

The Center has set up a list of people and organizations that will be of special interest to Texas community journalists.  Once you have your own Twitter account, go to https://twitter.com/thomason/tccj-twitter-list. Under the column “Tweets” on the right, you will see the people and organizations we recommend. Click on the name at the top, and you will be directed to the appropriate Twitter Profile.  You will see a button on the right side with the Twitter logo and the word Follow.  Click it.  If at any time in the future you want to Unfollow a person or organization, go back to their page – the button will remind you now that you are Following.  When you hover over that word, the word Unfollow will appear.  Click it and you have taken that person or organization out of your Twitter feed.

Once you have established your account, the rest is gravy.  Twitter will suggest other feeds similar to those you have followed.  And the people you are following will re-tweet others who will interest you and you’ll end up following them yourself.  Don’t be intimidated.  Spend 10 minutes a day with Twitter and you’ll be a pro in a week.

You will also want to use Twitter’s advanced search feature.  It’ll show you who has a Twitter account in your area and it will allow you to search for specific words.  Click here for a one-minute video on how to use advanced search to find people on Twitter in your area.

After you get your Twitter account established and get a feel for the Twittersphere, check out the Journalist’s Toolbox  for lots of additional Twitter resources and ways to expand your use of Twitter.

Twitter is a great tool for community journalists – and despite our caller’s fears, Twitter is a time-saver, not a time-waster.

Newspapers should add perspective with followup stories

When disasters strike, like the tornadoes in Hood County and Moore, Okla., recently, our first reaction is to cover the news and answer the questions our readers have in words and pictures, in print and online.

But that’s only the beginning. 

Behind every hard news story, there are human stories that need to be told – the news features and followup stories that flesh out the breaking news stories.

Here are two examples that demonstrate how we can tell those human stories.  The writer is Kathy Cruz, a reporter for the Hood County News and a consultant for TCCJ.

Kathy explains the background of the stories:

“Interviewing victims of a tragedy can be a challenge. For one thing, we should all want to exhibit sensitivity in those situations. For another thing, victims are oftentimes protected by agencies that swoop in to help and feel it is their duty to keep the media at bay.

“The morning after a tornado devastated the Rancho Brazos neighborhood in Hood County, I went to the First Christian Church in Granbury to cover a meeting about how best to coordinate donations and volunteer efforts. The church was also the site of a Red Cross shelter. Wandering about after the meeting, I could see what appeared to be an intake process, with Red Cross volunteers interviewing people who I assumed were tornado victims. I did not want to approach them “cold,” because I was afraid it might be insensitive and doing so would likely raise alarms with the Red Cross folks.

“I enlisted the help of a man with Habitat for Humanity, who had approached me about putting something in the paper about donations to Habitat. (Many of the victims lived in Habitat homes.) There was one woman in particular who really stood out to me. There was just something about her. Her eyes were red, but I had the feeling it was not so much due to crying but due to trauma. She just looked as if she had a story to tell. The Habitat volunteer approached her on my behalf, and she consented to an interview. My instincts had been right. She DID have quite a story to tell.”

The first story was headlined “I’m going with you:  Wife clutches husband as tornado threatens to rip him away.”

By Kathy Cruz
Hood County News

“Our Father who art in Heaven. Hallowed be Thy name.”

In two bathrooms at the Parsons home on Tumbleweed Lane near the Rancho Brazos Community Center, reciting the Lord’s Prayer was the only thing the terrified family knew to do as an EF-4 tornado slammed full force into the four-bedroom brick home.

“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done…”

On Sunday afternoon, Marlene Parsons of Quinlan recounted what happened to her son, Eddie, his wife, Bobi, and her grandsons Avery and Anthony the evening that a nightmare dropped straight out of the sky.

Anthony’s friend, Lance, was over visiting. They took refuge in one bathroom; Eddie, Bobi and Avery were in the other. The bathrooms were only a few feet from each other, and they were the only rooms that remained standing.

As Marlene relayed the story to the Hood County News, volunteers in matching T-shirts worked to recover anything of the family’s that was salvageable.

There didn’t appear to be much, although – miraculously – Bobi managed to find the wedding rings of her Meemaw and Paw-Paw, who raised her. It was the only piece of good luck she’s had in a long time.

Atop a mound of debris Bobi sat, lost in her thoughts, methodically sifting through a wreckage of memories.

“I think it’s part of her grieving process,” said Marlene.

We did not disturb her. Instead, we let Marlene tell the family’s story:

Eddie and the boys had been watching the rainstorm, and Eddie was photographing the grapefruit-sized hail. An odd dust storm seemed to appear. It turned into a funnel cloud.

Windows started to implode.

Eddie ordered the boys into the house.

Marlene, seeing a report about violent weather in Hood County on TV, phoned to check on the family. She could hear Bobi shouting for the boys to take cover.

They snatched cushions from the couch as they fled to the bathrooms, away from the glass on the front and back sides of the house. They could see the funnel cloud drop directly over them.

The mighty wind plucked brick after brick off the house. It hurled them like missiles through the air, making ever thinner the barrier between the family and the violent force of nature.

Eddie struggled to get a mattress through the bathroom door to lay over his wife and son.

“Forget the mattress!” Bobi yelled.

She screamed at her husband to shut the door and step into the bathtub with her and Avery before it was too late. When he did, Bobi clutched him in what felt like a death grip.

“You go out with this tornado,” she shouted above the deafening roar, “and I’m going with you.”

Eddie would later tell his mother that he had never felt anything quite like Bobi’s grip that night when she thought the tornado might claim him.

A short distance from where the family was being hit by flying glass and Sheetrock, neighbors were being hurled to their deaths.

When the tornado had passed, Eddie peeked through the bathroom door and looked out into nothingness.

“Everything’s gone. Everything’s gone,” he said.

The night was pitch black, except for the surreal sight of sparking electrical wires whipping in the wind like creatures from a sci-fi movie.

“Anthony! Anthony! Anthony!” Eddie yelled.

Anthony answered. He and his friend were alive.

Eddie then looked up at the sky that had rained down terror and destruction, through the clouds and into what lay beyond.

“Thank you, God,” he said. “I love you, Jesus Christ. I have my family. Nothing else matters.”

The next story was headlined “I saw the tornado coming for us.”

By Kathy Cruz
Hood County News

One minute, Ronna Cotten was watching a spring shower with her two daughters and their friend. The next, she was fighting with all the strength she had to keep them alive.

Cotten, who lives in a Habitat for Humanity home in Rancho Brazos, struggled to keep a grip on the doorknob of the hall closet where the three girls were screaming in terror as powerful winds threatened to suck them into the blackened sky Wednesday evening.

“I just did the best I could,” said Cotten, who attributed the red blotches that appeared on her arms the next day to “nerves.”

In the vortex of violence, the single mother with a slender build somehow managed to get the best of the powerful twister, even as the family’s home on Sundown Trail was ripped apart around her.

“All you could hear was windows breaking and things crashing,” she said. “It was bad.”

By the time the family showed up Thursday morning at the Red Cross shelter at First Christian Church on Highway 377, Cotton looked as if she had been to hell and back.

Fact was, she had.

‘a horror movie’

It was when the hail grew larger that Cotten instructed the girls to head to the hall closet.

The rest happened very, very fast.

“I saw the tornado coming for us,” she said. “I was heading toward the kids when I saw it.”

At that same moment, she said, emergency sirens began blaring.

Inside the closet, they could feel the house shaking and things hitting the other side of the wall.

“We were screaming,” said 14-year-old Cheyenne, a friend of the Cotten girls who attends Acton Middle School. “It happened so fast.”

In a wood frame house not far away, another terrified child huddled in a hallway.

Cindy Wilkerson said that her 10-year-old grandson, Joseph Wilkerson, clung to his mother, Angela. The three had taken refuge in a hallway of Cindy’s home at the corner of Echo Trail and Canyon Road.

Cindy’s garage was destroyed, windows were broken and the roof was damaged – but she knows it could have been much worse.

“On my street, everybody’s house was still standing,” said the occupational home health care worker. “Behind us, and at the end of the street, houses were missing. It’s not something I would want to live through again.”

Wednesday night’s horror was a sobering initiation for Precinct 1 County Commissioner James Deaver, who has only been in office a few months.

While other county officials were busy “standing up” the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) at the Law Enforcement Center, Deaver was asked to head directly to the scene of the devastation.

As a former employee in the county’s Road Operations department, Deaver assisted as 18 Road Ops employees worked to clear roads and check for downed power lines. He phoned in reports to officials at the EOC.

Road Ops Director Donald Linney lives in the neighborhood hit by the storm. His county truck ended up a couple of blocks away from his damaged home.

“It was a three-quarter-ton pickup that was way down in the brush where it had been thrown like a crushed can,” said Precinct 4 Commissioner Steve Berry. He was bemused that Linney was apologetic about having “lost the county truck.”

“That’s Don,” said Berry. “He’s always taking care of the county.”

Deaver said he stayed on the scene until about 2 a.m. Thursday, and was back by 6:30 a.m.

“It looks like a bomb went off over here,” he told the Hood County News from his cell phone at the scene. “It’s awful.”

The commissioner said that the county’s Animal Control department was working to round up displaced pets.

“There was a dog sitting on a foundation like he was waiting on somebody to come back to it,” he said.

“Mouse,” the black Chihuahua owned by the Cottens, was the only possession snatched up by the frightened family as they fled their home.

“It felt like we were in a horror movie,” relayed Breanna, a seventh-grader at AMS.

With the tornado having moved on, the Cottens thought the horror was over.

But it wasn’t.

‘total mayhem’

Victims began gathering at American Legion Post 491, stumbling in the driving rain out of the Rancho Brazos neighborhood via Tumbleweed Trail and Sundown Trail.

The Post had not escaped the storm unscathed. The roof was damaged, and rain was pouring in. Nevertheless, it would have to serve as an interim trauma center.

Emergency responders began laying the most critically wounded on tables that were “strategically placed between the streams” of pouring water, according to Public Safety Chaplain Joe Phillips.

Hood County News photographer Mary Vinson called the scene “surreal.” There was no electricity, only flashlights and emergency lights.

“They evacuated the whole development,” said Vinson. “You could see stretchers and people carrying babies. People were without shoes and shirts. They were bloodied and muddied. At the same time, we could hear the hiss of gas.”

Ronna Cotten said that there were “people walking around with gashed heads.” The legs of a child about 6 or 7 were “all cut up,” she said.

According to Phillips, those whose injuries were non-critical were moved to buses that had been sent by the Granbury Independent School District.

“Ambulances from all over the region were staged for transport,” said Phillips. “As fast as they pulled up, triage staff were packaging and transporting. New patients were arriving via brush truck or whatever they could ride in. You constantly heard ‘Make a hole!’ as new victims arrived or were transported out.”

In the chaos and confusion, the dead were temporarily placed in a shed on Post property.

Ronna Cotten, who works three jobs to support her family, said that she and the girls witnessed the last moments of a man who had suffered a head injury.

“He was standing up at the corner of the building, and his head was cut open. He collapsed,” Cotten said.

She said the girls saw emergency responders zipping the man into a body bag and carrying his body to the shed.

“The kids had to witness all this,” she said. Her youngest daughter, Marissa, is a third-grader at Acton Elementary.

Phillips, who has long worked with Hood County’s emergency teams, said he heard someone comment about not being “ready for this.”

“I say, ‘Not true,’” Phillips wrote in a message to the Hood County News the day after the tornado.

“We didn’t want this, but the emergency services of Hood County were ready for this. Training, meetings, simulations and debriefings — all made these men and women ready to take action and mold chaos into a process.”

Vinson, who has worked with the same crews for years as a photographer for the HCN, said that emergency responders managed, in pitch dark and driving rain, to corral mayhem into “controlled chaos.”

“I think they did an extremely good job,” she said. “All hands were on deck. I’ve watched them in action for 12 years, and they’re at the top of their game.”

News editor tells how a Texas community newspaper’s coverage was picked up worldwide

Sometimes we go find the news.

Other times, it finds us.

Last week Evan Ebel sped into Wise County, guns blazing, and brought a tragic story to our front door.

Although covering tragedy is nothing new at the Wise County Messenger, this time we did it with the national media looking over our shoulder.

The morning of March 21 started quietly, but by noon, we had covered a frenzied chase, a police shootout with a seemingly crazed gunman, and were exploring connections to murders in Colorado. By the next morning our work, primarily the photos by Joe Duty and Jimmy Alford, had appeared in publications, on websites and television broadcasts of at least 27 media outlets around the world.  

It was not a typical news day in Wise County. 

Seven of us huddled in the newsroom when we heard the word “gunshots” on the police scanner about 11 a.m. Prior to this, I spent most of the morning answering emails and doing phone interviews. I had chatted with an assistant DA  and the First Baptist preacher and had plans to write all afternoon. But my plans changed quickly.

All we knew at that point was that local law enforcement was chasing a suspect who had “assaulted” a deputy in Montague County, and this guy was shooting at officers along U.S. 287. 

We shifted into “breaking news mode,” which for us means a reporter and photographer head to the scene while someone at the office posts to our website and monitors Facebook comments until the dust settles.

On this day, two photographers headed to the scene, along with a reporter. After they left, we continued listening to the scanner, and I made several frantic calls to Joe and reporter Brandon Evans to give them some idea of where this guy was headed. 

The gravity of the situation was brought to light when the dispatcher said, “He’s stopped … and he’s reloading.” 

Those words hung heavy in the newsroom. 

That’s when I knew he wasn’t trying to slow down officers, or just cause a distraction. He was shooting to kill.

The chase seemed to last forever, but in reality it was just 24 minutes. We heard the dispatcher say there was a wreck, and the suspect was still shooting. 

The next words: “Suspect down.” 

Was he dead? Were any officers hurt? What about the accident? Were other drivers injured? 

All we could do was wait. 

[Our photographers] returned quickly to post photos and share what they witnessed, while Brandon stayed at the site to gather as much information as possible. 

Joe Duty sent one photo from the scene that we had already posted, and we began combing through others while waiting for Brandon to return. I knew it was a matter of time before the Dallas/Fort Worth TV stations started calling. They monitor our breaking news and will often call asking for permission to run Joe’s photos, hoping we’ll feed them other key details.

The funny thing is, our staff initally agreed: No TV. We weren’t sharing with anyone. 

“They can come get their own story.” That was the prevailing sentiment. You see, when the DFW TV crews call, they’re often demanding and want us to just give away everything we’ve worked hard to gather. They regularly insinuate their newscast should be our top priority, even though we’re in the midst of covering it for our readers and have no obligation to their viewers.

Plus, we’ve been burned a few times. Photos have been run on TV without our permission or what’s worse, without giving Duty or the Wise County Messenger credit.

Fellow newspapers, we decided, would be handled differently. Obviously, we’d share as much as we could with them.

The first to call was the Times Record-News in Wichita Falls, who wanted to post one of our photos to their website. In the meantime, we heard the Montague County deputy had been shot, but we didn’t have that verified. We contacted the Bowie News trying to get those details and began a little sleuth work of our own on the Colorado connection. 

Coincidentally, a Messenger staff member has family who live just a few streets away from Tom Clements, the head of the Colorado prison system who was murdered earlier in the week. They immediately recognized that the black, boxy car with Colorado plates matched the description from the vehicle in that incident. Brandon began calling authorities in Colorado trying to substantiate that, but it was all speculation at this point. 

By mid-afternoon, it seemed inevitable there was a Colorado connection, and this story was now national news. Brandon spoke with a Denver TV station, and The Denver Post came calling.  

“Oh, my gosh! Those photos are epic! Did this happen like right next to your office?” asked Dana Coffield, the Post’s city editor. 

I was caught off-guard. This is just what we do. 

But I enjoyed hashing it out with her. We listen to the police scanner 24/7, so as soon as we heard there was a chase, we headed that way. We also had a photographer shooting on both sides of the scene, which provided extensive coverage. 

And I gently reminded her that it’s a small town. It doesn’t take long to get anywhere. 

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram called shortly thereafter requesting photos, and as a bonus, they offered to post them on the AP wire for us. At that point, the photos were availabe to any paper that’s a member of the Associated Press, which enabled us to spend more time on coverage and less time emailing photos. 

The afternoon was a haze of press conferences, phone calls and re-telling the story time and again. As the magnitude of the story became more clear, we backed off our stand against TV news and were happy to share with ABC World News Tonight, CNN and the CBS Evening News, just to name a few. The Dallas/Fort Worth media outlets were in Decatur conducting interviews and shooting their own footage.

The next morning, one of Joe Duty’s photos was plastered across the Star-Telegram front page, and Jimmy Alford had one on the front of the Denver Post. 

Videos and photos also appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, Daily Mail (UK), Kansas City Star, KnoxNews (Knoxville, Tenn.), Yahoo!News, New York Daily News, Boston Globe, The Inquirer (Philadelphia), Dallas Morning News and The Pueblo Chieftain (Colorado).

Readers also saw the Messenger’s work in USA Today, Associated Press (The Big Story Section), Fresno Bee, Los Angeles Times, Salt Lake Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle PI, Tri City Herald (Washington), Boston Herald and the World Journal. 

I’ll admit; we were all a bit starstruck, but we had also all worked hard to report the story quickly and accurately while being sensitive to the families, officers and emergency responders involved. 

We take pride in local news and making sure that’s the focus of our coverage. We only cover “national news” if we can find a local angle. 

On this day, the line between local and national disappeared, and we were all just reporters.

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.
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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.
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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.