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Community Journalism Journal Issue 1 Volume 9

The Reddit Oasis: Analyzing the potential role of location-based subreddits in the alleviation of news deserts

This mixed-method qualitative-quantitative content analysis examined if content posted to location-based pages on Reddit could alleviate the impact of news deserts. News deserts are areas where, due to newspaper closures and a lack of attention from television stations, a community has no regular news source. Six hundred posts across 20 location-based subreddits were coded based on FCC criteria for information needs. The results indicate content is primarily focused on emergencies and civic information.  

Many communities in the United States have been, and still are, experiencing a journalistic crisis in the form of news deserts (Abernathy, 2016). The term is used to define areas where, due to closures of newspapers and a lack of attention from television stations, a community is left with no regular publication of “credible and comprehensive news and information” as defined by the book The Rise of a New Media Baron and the Emerging Threat of News Deserts (Abernathy, 2016). The Southeastern U.S. has been hit the hardest by this phenomenon, with a total of 91 counties without any newspaper. The next-closest region is the Mountain West, with only 28 counties without a newspaper. No Southern state has been hit harder than Georgia. Georgia has 28 counties without a newspaper. That is more counties without a newspaper, either daily or weekly, than all of the West Coast, Mid-Atlantic, and New England states combined (Abernathy, 2018). From 2009 to 2018, the number of newspapers in Georgia decreased 21%, newspaper circulation declined 48%, all while the overall population of Georgia increased about 9.5%. The news deserts are often seen as the result of the chaotic, shifting nature of the modern news economy, one where newspapers have seen their traditional ways of making money shrink due to competition from the Internet and a changing reader base (Napoli et. al., 2019). As newspapers run out of money and close or become shells of their former selves, the areas they cover lose access to vital information.

The Federal Communications Commission and the University of Southern California released a report called “Review of Literature Regarding Critical Information Needs of the American Public” (Friedland et. al., 2012). In the report, the FCC and USC detail eight key needs that communities have that are fulfilled by local news outlets. Those are: access to clear and credible information during emergencies; access to health information; information about local schools and educational possibilities; information about transportation; short-term and long-term information about the environment and planning; economic information concerning development and opportunities; information about local civic institutions and interaction; and information about the local impact of state and federal-level political decisions. As local newspapers close and news deserts form, those key eight needs are left unfulfilled for millions of Americans (Abernathy, 2016). This has left many mass communication researchers searching for a solution to the news desert problem.

This is where Reddit comes into play. Reddit is one of the biggest digital spaces in the United States. As of March 2020, it is the sixth most-visited website in the U.S. (Alexa, 2020). The site, which might be most-accurately called a “social link aggregator,” is not one single thing, but rather a huge network of smaller topic-specific pages called “subreddits,” where people can post content, comment on other people’s content, and vote positively if they like that content and negatively if they do not (Widman, 2020). There are subreddits for any conceivable topic, from identifying insects to finding friends for table-top games to swimming pool maintenance. And, on Reddit, there are subreddits that have been made to represent geographic areas. Each of the 50 states within the U.S. has its own subreddit, many of which have more than 10 million subscribers. Within each state, there are anywhere from dozens to hundreds of subreddits made for cities, towns, and communities, and many of those subreddits are active hubs where users post about concerns they have in their local area, share stories, announce new restaurants, advertise garage sales, and post photos of lost pets. Within larger cities, there are subreddits dedicated just to specific neighborhoods. There is a ribbon of digital highway crossing the U.S. in the form of these location-based subreddits.

This study analyzed 30 of the top posts in 20 location-based subreddits in Georgia to see if the eight needs identified by the FCC and USC via Friedland et. al. (2012) are potentially being fulfilled by the content posted to those location-based subreddits. The study examined if the subreddits could organically create enough of the right kinds of information, not simply reposted from a local or regional newspapers, but original to the subreddit itself, to alleviate some of the lapses in critical information caused by news deserts.

Literature Review

Uses and Gratification Theory

From a theoretical standpoint, it is important to establish that there are specific needs associated with consuming local news. This study, which looks at the eight needs identified by the FCC and USC (Friedland, et. al., 2012), uses Uses and Gratifications Theory to support the concept of information as a human need. As it was articulated by Katz and Blumler (1974), Uses and Gratifications Theory outlines the reasons people consume media. Among the reasons are cognitive needs, affective needs, personal integrative needs, social integrative needs, and tension-free or entertainment needs. This study focuses on the cognitive, or informational, needs that are associated with news media.

Key to Uses and Gratification Theory is the idea of the active audience (Kaye & Johnson, 2002). Understanding the audience as a self-aware consumer was a departure from the media-effects focus of the 1940s. At that time, a person’s motivations were of less interest to researchers than the impact of media interaction. The shift to emphasizing individual’s goals and needs makes the theory uniquely suited for internet-based research. Uses and Gratifications research is adapting to the changing media landscape. Sundar and Limperos (2013) argue that the not all gratifications are the direct result of need and that technology can change a person’s needs. They point out that the type of engagement used with online media requires more active interaction and selection of content than traditional media. Ruggiero (2000) said that while the question remains the same – why do people use one form of communication over another – there are new concepts that need consideration in our understanding of Uses and Gratification. He introduced these additional concepts: interactivity, demassification, hypertextuality, asynchroneity and interpersonal aspects of mediated communication. He also pointed out that Uses and Gratifications Theory provided a “cutting edge” theoretical approach for new media (27). Use of the internet, and by extension a location-based subreddit, may therefore be best interpreted through a Uses and Gratifications lens.

News Deserts

News deserts are geographic areas where key issues and events are no longer covered journalistically in daily or weekly newspapers or via dedicated professional news websites (Abernathy, 2016). From 2008 to 2018, more than one in five newspapers ceased operation. The newspaper closures have disproportionately been in areas not typically serviced by either larger metro daily newspapers or local TV news stations.

As Abernathy (2018) describes it, the news deserts are expanding quickly in areas that may have vastly different demographics from one another, from inner-city neighborhoods to affluent suburbs on the periphery of metro areas to rural agricultural towns. Those areas were once serviced by smaller local publications, but since 2004, almost 1,800 local newspapers have shut down. The reasons for this sharp decline are primarily economic. Newspaper circulation over the last 15 years has decreased from 122 million to 73 million, and decreasing circulation means less advertising revenue. Demographically, people who live in the counties that are considered either total news deserts or emerging news deserts have a five percentage-point higher rate of poverty, have a medium income $14,000 lower, and have a 14 percentage-point lower rate of people with a college degree. The lower income also means less advertising revenue for a newspaper or news product wishing to operate within that area. The period of growth for news deserts also correlates with the trend of newspapers being purchased by larger and larger chains that consolidate, and to make up for the cost of consolidation, tend to cut reporters, editors and photographers, along with shutting down bureau offices and constricting coverage area (Fox, 2019).

The shutdown of thousands of local papers has left 3,143 counties in the U.S. without a single newspaper or dedicated news website devoted to specifically covering issues within that county (Abernathy, 2018). That is not to say that every area noted in the data on news deserts is without a newspaper. One of the newest areas of analysis in studying news deserts is that of the “ghost paper.” A ghost paper is defined as a small weekly or daily newspaper that still publishes, but whose budget is no longer big enough to perform proper journalistic coverage (Abernathy, 2018). Ghost papers often carry an excess of wire copy and may be limited to only one or two stories written by local reporters per edition.

Abernathy (2018) points out that television news does not combat the problem of news deserts. Although local television news does cover stories from news desert areas, there are two problems. One is that TV content from news desert areas tends to be limited to only one or two stories per broadcast, as TV news stations tend to keep their reporters close to their main metro area. The other is that the few stories they cover from news desert areas are almost always limited to four topics: crime, weather, sports, and soft features.

The way news deserts impact society is still being actively researched. The growth of news deserts is impacting the entire “news ecosystem” (Miller, 2018). Miller (2018), through a series of interviews with editors and journalists, notes that important investigative reporting often begins with otherwise mundane city council meetings, school board meetings, and zoning meetings. This is reflective of the role of journalists as watchdogs and journalism as having a key role in democracy (Roughton, 2019). News deserts tend to have lower voter turnout, leading to questions about the press and the long-term health of an informed electorate (Abernathy, 2016). Areas where news coverage declines tend to see an increase in government inefficiency and municipal borrowing (Gao, Lee & Murphy, 2018). Even physical health is affected. Health researchers and epidemiologists often study local news content when analyzing areas at risk of serious health outbreaks, which means those very same epidemiologists are less able to quickly target said outbreaks (Branswell, 2018).

There is compelling research on inventive ways to “fix” the problem of news deserts. Some work has focused on the need to better assess the nature of local journalism, focusing on infrastructure of news production, the output of news, and the quality of said news coverage (Napoli, et. al., 2016). Some researchers have attempted to more clearly understand the informational need gaps when news in an area is lacking by assessing different models of need (Watson & Cavanah, 2015). Dedicated online news sites have been a hopeful solution, but many are short-lived, and those that survive tend to be clustered close to metro areas already serviced by a larger daily newspaper or TV news (Abernathy, 2018; Nygren, Leckner & Tenor, 2018). This study is a continuation of the work into what options may exist to “fix” news deserts, as it examined the potential of Reddit, with its myriad location-based subreddits and democratic system of posting content, to act as a method of fulfillment of the needs of communities that were once filled by local newspapers.

This research also shares some commonalities with researching examining user-generated content, which is sometimes referred to as citizen journalism or participatory journalism. User-generated content is the processing and distribution of news-related content that was originally created not by a professional, trained journalist, but instead by someone from the audience (Paulussen & Ugille, 2008; Lewis, Kaufhold & Lasorsa, 2010). User-generated content could be anything from a photograph of storm damage posted to a news outlet’s Facebook page to a full solicited article of a city council meeting. Professional reaction to user-generated content is inconsistent. Lewis et al. (2010) found that editors who disapprove of user-generated content did so on two differing grounds: theoretical and practical. For theoretical, the issue was a concern over amateurization of the industry, and for the practical, it would take too much work to make sure the content met professional standards.

However, one important distinction between this research, which looked at Reddit, and pure user-generated content, is that UGC involves a central, controlled organizational structure. The question of community news publications relying on UGC, by default, involves a conversation about the centralized structure and what it chooses to distribute. With Reddit, there is no central authority beyond the moderators and site administrators, neither of which approach the centralized role of an editor.

Reddit

Reddit is neither a social media platform nor a forum, neither a news website nor a message board. There is no single, central “Reddit.” Instead, the website is constructed out of more than 500,000 “subreddits,” or smaller sites dedicated to specific topics (Widman, 2020). Each “subreddit” is identified in the URL of the website by the notation “/r/,” which has led to the popular nomenclature of including the “/r/” in the name of the overall subreddit. Each subreddit can be subscribed to by people who have signed up and made an account with Reddit. Once they have subscribed to that subreddit, they will see content from that subreddit in their main feed, like the “wall” of a social media site. The subreddits range in size from the gigantic /r/funny, a very general subreddit made for posting funny photos with about 30 million subscribers as of April 2020, to /r/slowcooking, where people share Crock Pot recipes, with about 2 million subscribers, to smaller subreddits of increasingly niche topics with fewer subscribers.

The uniqueness of Reddit comes from the way users interact with it. Users have the option to post items to subreddits of their choosing, with the options being a text post, an image post, or a link. A text post is like a blog. The content will show up with a headline for others to read and a body of text written by whoever posted it. An image post is an uploaded photograph or video clip, or one linked from an independent hosting site like Imgur, where other users can click a small icon and make the image or video itself appear without having to go to another page. A link post is a hyperlink to another, outside website.

Reddit is very popular. According to Alexa (2020), Reddit is the sixth most-visited website in the U.S. based on unique page views. According to their own internal data, Reddit regularly averages 234 million unique users and 8 billion page views a month (Smith, 2018). The numbers alone indicate that Reddit has the potential to act as a powerful digital space. It has more people visiting, sharing, clicking, and reading than any news site. Yet there have been comparatively few academic studies examining Reddit, using it as a basis for an online, digital space in the same way sites like Facebook and Twitter have been examined.

Research Questions

The study progressed with two research questions:

RQ1: Do location-based subreddits contain user-created information in ways that fulfills the needs that community newspapers once did?

RQ2: What needs and sub-needs, as categorized by the FCC and USC (Friedland, 2012), are being fulfilled by location-based subreddits?

Methods

This study was conducted as a mixed-method quantitative and qualitative content analysis. First, a sample was formed. This study focused on Georgia because of the research that shows the Peach State has more news deserts than any other state both in raw number and per-capita (Abernathy, 2018). A list of all location-based subreddits was found on the subreddit called “/r/LocationReddits.” Each subreddit listed as being in Georgia was checked, and if there had been at least one post made to the subreddit within the last week, the Georgian subreddit was included in the sample. Having at least one new post within a week showed that the subreddit was at least somewhat active. Twenty subreddits qualified to be included. They are: /r/Alpharetta, /r/Athens, /r/Augusta, /r/CarrolltonGeorgia, /r/Cartersville, /r/CherokeeCountyGA, /r/ColumbusGA, /r/DaltonGA, /r/DecaturGA, /r/Gwinnett, /r/JohnsCreek, /r/Macon, /r/Marietta, /r/Pooler, /r/Newnan, /r/RomeGA, /r/Roswell, /r/Savannah, /r/Smyrna, and /r/Valdosta. The number of posts made in the last week during the period of time where these subreddits were evaluated on their activity level ranged from a single post on five of the subreddits, to Savannah, with 37 new posts in the previous week.

There was one large subreddit that was not used in this study: /r/Atlanta. When examined, /r/Atlanta had more than 300 posts in the previous week, making it quite active. But the intention of this study is to examine the potential for geographically based subreddits to potentially alleviate the problem of news deserts. Atlanta, as a major metropolitan hub, is the center of a large TV market, and has plenty of available news media. It was therefore excluded from the sample. The Atlanta subreddit lists other neighborhood-specific subreddits like /r/Midtown and /r/BuckheadGA, but none of them except /r/DecaturGA met the criteria of having at least one new post in the previous week.

Once the 20 subreddits were picked, the top-30 most-upvoted posts in the history of the subreddit were screen-captured in order to save and analyze. One post was considered one unit of measure. The screen-capturing occurred in January 2020. It is important to note that while coding and analysis was occurring in March and April 2020, a cursory look at the subreddits in the sample revealed that some posts about that city or county’s response to COVID-19 had made their way into the top-30 posts by upvote. If analyzed in April 2020, the sample would likely result in more items coded in the “health” category. The top-30 all-time posts were picked instead of the 30 most-recent posts in order to get a better sense of the kinds of content that the subreddit values the most and potentially sees the most importance in. It also helps avoid issues where a single recent news event dominates the entire subreddit. Each of the 20 subreddits in the sample were assigned a “desert score.” This was based on the UNC county-by-county data and was a number of how many newspapers, both daily and weekly, exist in the county (Abernathy, 2018). Five of the subreddits scored a 1 on the “desert score,” indicating they had only one newspaper left serving the whole county, something the UNC data notes as being high risk for becoming a total news desert. Three of the subreddits in the sample, /r/Alpharetta, /r/JohnsCreek, and /r/Roswell, had a desert score of 11, meaning there are 11 different newspapers within that county, the highest in the entire state of Georgia. That was because they are geographically within Fulton County, which is also one of the main counties Atlanta is in, and most of those 11 publications within the data are based in Atlanta.

Another important distinction with the sample involves the geography of Atlanta’s suburban sprawl. The Atlanta Regional Commission (2021) recognizes 10 counties that together compose the Atlanta metropolitan area: Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, and Rockdale. Some subreddits in the sample come from areas that are designated as existing within the Atlanta metro area, such as /r/Gwinnett in Gwinnett County, and /r/Marietta and /r/Smyrna in Cobb County. Those areas are within the coverage area of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, however because the AJC is not located within Cobb County, it does not register as a news outlet in the news desert data.

Information about the subreddits in the sample, as well as their desert scores and population, can be found in Table 1.

 

Table 1

 

Subreddits used in the sample of this study and information about the real-world location and subreddit activity.

Subreddit name Real-world county News desert status Subreddit subscribers County population Posts to subreddit in week before data collection
/r/Alpharetta Fulton 11 1,696 57,551 6
/r/Athens Clarke 2 6,511 125,964 25
/r/Augusta Richmond 3 3,471 195,844 18
/r/Carrollton Carroll 2 205 24,388 1
/r/Catersville Bartow 3 244 19,731 2
/r/CherokeeCountyGA Cherokee 2 465 254,149 1
/r/Columbus Muscogee 2 1,376 189,885 6
/r/DaltonGA Whitfield 1 369 33,500 2
/r/DecaturGA DeKalb 1 1,230 19,335 1
/r/Gwinnett Gwinnett 1 3,547 927,781 14
/r/JohnsCreek Fulton 11 238 76,738 2
/r/Macon Bibb 1 1,030 153,095 3
/r/Marietta Cobb 1 1,983 60,806 3
/r/Pooler Chatham 4 208 19,414 3
/r/Newnan Coweta 2 428 33,039 1
/r/RomeGA Floyd 1 448 36,303 2
/r/Roswell Fulton 11 1,227 88,346 1
/r/Savannah Chatham 4 7,100 136,286 37
/r/Smyrna Cobb 1 677 51,265 2
/r/Valdosta Lowndes 1 460 54,518 2

 

It is important to note that the Columbia Journalism Review has collected their own data on how many newspapers exist in each county, but they only have data on daily newspapers, not weekly newspapers (Applegate & Hoffman, 2017). Since smaller rural communities are disproportionately impacted by expanding news deserts (Abernathy, 2014), and many of the subreddits in the sample are for smaller rural areas, data on the number of weekly newspapers that often operate in these areas was needed for comparison. Another important note is that there are recorded criticisms of Abernathy’s (2008) news desert data. One of the more prominent concerns shared by the Georgia Press Association is that Abernathy (2008) does not include newspapers that exist to publish government-mandated legal notices (Williams, 2020). Abernathy has responded that those publications do not meet the FCC’s criteria for a newspaper. This study used the same FCC criteria, and as such, would not have included those publications as functioning news outlets.

Next, a codebook was developed to help shape the qualitative assessment at the individual post level. First, it was noted if each post on the given subreddit was a text post, an image post, or a hyperlink. If the post was a hyperlink, it was noted if the hyperlink went to a news website or not. If the post went to a news website, it was noted what kind of news was being linked, namely to determine if the news outlet being linked to the subreddit was from a local source, a regional source, or a national source. This determination was important, because if a geographical subreddit is only acting as a conduit for what a local newspaper is publishing, it is not really acting to alleviate the problem of news deserts. This study was fundamentally examining if these subreddits were acting as their own generators of news and information that could fulfill the needs noted by the Friedland et. al., (2012) study. Finally, the needs and sub-needs from that report were noted. Coders were asked to identify if the post contained information pertaining to: emergencies and public safety, health, education, transportation, environment and planning, economic development, civic information, or political life. Each one of those eight needs also had a list of sub-needs as noted in the FCC and USC research (Friedland et. al., 2012), and coders were asked to pick the sub-need that best applied or note “other” when necessary. Coders were told they could select more than one need being fulfilled by the same post, but they were asked to explain their decision in the codebook. Coders were asked to write a short description explaining the topic of the post and how it fit within the sub-need, or if it did not fit within a listed sub-need, why it still should be considered as fulfilling a need.

Intercoder reliability was tested using two trained independent coders who cross-coded three posts from each subreddit, for a total of 60 posts. First, the numeric overlap was scored as if it were a quantitative content analysis. Those numbers indicated agreement at 93%. The justifications for noting a sub-need were also compared. Although this qualitative component was not calculated mathematically, the coders agreed in their justifications in 56 of the 60 tested posts.

Results

A total of 600 posts were coded, 30 from each of the 20 subreddits. Of the 600 coded posts, 201 (33.5%) were text posts, 224 (37.3%) were image posts, and 175 (29.1%) were hyperlinks. Although the proportion of type of post appears even when looking at the dataset as a whole, once broken down into individual location-based subreddit, differences do appear. Of the 30 coded posts from /r/Savannah, 27 (90%) were image posts. And, of those image posts, most fulfilled no informational need. Almost all of them were either memes containing inside jokes about the area or were simple photographs showing off the beauty of the historic areas of the city. The same trend is seen is some of the other location-based subreddits in more populated areas. In /r/Augusta, 24 (80%) of the posts were image posts, and in /r/Athens, 21 (70%) were image posts. In general, the more populated subreddits relied more on image posts, while smaller subreddits had an even split, and the smallest subreddits tended to have more text posts. This appears to be more connected to the given location being one with a higher volume of tourism in a more tightly centered metro area than any other variable, as Savannah is known for its history and architecture, Augusta for the Masters Tournament, and Athens for the University of Georgia and its music scene.

First, some of the quantitative components of the content analysis will be addressed. Of the eight needs examined from Friedland et al. (2012), there was a divide between four needs that were popular on the subreddits, and four that were not. Of the 600 total coded posts, 338 were identified as fulfilling the eight needs. Breaking that down, 101 posts (16.8%) contained information that could be identified as fulfilling the need for information on emergencies and public safety, followed by 69 (11.5%) that fulfilled the need for civic information, 48 (8%) that fulfilled the need for economic information, and 40 (6.6%) that fulfilled the need for political information. Those four needs represent the most popular. The four needs that were less fulfilled were transportation information with 24 posts (4%), information on education and schools with 20 posts (3.3%), health information with 19 posts (3.1%), and environmental information with 17 posts (2.8%).

However, it is important to note that some of those posts which were coded as fulfilling one of Friedland et. al.’s (2012) needs were posts that were hyperlinks back to existing news websites. For the purposes of this study, those must be accounted for, as they do not represent a subreddit organically fulfilling the role that either a closed community newspaper or a ghost newspaper once filled. At that point, the subreddit is acting as a conduit for existing news coverage, meaning they are not alleviating the problem of news deserts. Of the 600 coded posts, 163 (27%) were identified as coming from existing news sites. Of the 163 linked news sites 40 (24.5%) went to local newspapers, 30 (18.4%) went to local news websites, 37 (22.6%) went to local TV stations, 25 (15.3%) went to regional newspapers, 19 (11.6%) went to regional news websites, and 12 (7.3%) went to national news websites. None of the 600 coded posts linked to national newspapers or national TV news outlets. The most prominent single news source was the Atlanta Journal Constitution, even in southern areas of the state such as Valdosta and Macon, which are 228 miles and 83 miles from the Atlanta metropolitan area respectively.

The goal of this study was not just to count how many posts qualified as fulfilling the needs defined by Friedland et. al. (2012), but to qualitatively examine how qualifying posts are potentially fulfilling the sub-topics of those needs defined in the same research. To do this, the results will now be broken up by need, with sub-needs analyzed within. They will be ordered from most-fulfilled need to least-fulfilled need.

Emergencies and Public Safety. Information on emergencies and public safety was by-far the most-posted form of information fulfillment. Of the 101 coded posts, 49 were posted organically from non-news sources. Breaking the sub-topics down further, of the 101 posts that fulfilled the need for information on emergencies and public safety, 53 (52.4%) involved policing and crime, 11 (10.8%) involved outbreaks, 7 (6.9%) involved Amber Alerts, 6 (5.9%) involved dangerous weather, 1 (0.9%) involved terrorism, and 21 (20.7%) were counted as “other.” Many of the reported “others” were people upset over a run-away pet, often posting photos and contact information and asking if anyone has seen it to let them know.

The most common context for policing and crime was people reporting crimes or posting evidence of crimes. The nature of these crimes ranged from car burglaries to shootings. This follows one of the norms of traditional journalistic coverage, where crime is often disproportionately covered. Ironically, the subreddits, despite not being traditional news, followed those same trends. There was also an element of breaking news and usefulness to the reader in some of the posts, as can be seen below in Figure 1, where a user is warning others who might live in the Blanton Street neighborhood of Valdosta to stay indoors because of a shooting.

Figure 1

This is the same kind of content, with the same applicability, that one might find on the website of a local news website, however the information was reported organically by a Reddit user. The language is less professional, as a trained professional reporter would not likely say victims are “probably dead,” but if the end goal is to keep people away from a dangerous area, then the post is fulfilling that need.

Civic Information. Of the 69 posts that fulfilled the need for civic information, 50 (72.4%) were posted organically from non-news sources, making it one of the most organic categories in information sharing. Of the 69 posts, 42 (60.8%) were coded as recreational opportunities, 8 (11.5%) were coded as culture and arts, 4 (5.7%) involved non-profit organizations, 4 (5.7%) involved social service programs, and 10 (14.4%) were coded as “other.” There were no posts about libraries, churches, or other religious institutions. The vast majority of information fulfillment in this was people posting things to do, and most of that involved real-world meet-ups or events of some kind. And along with that, most of the coded “others” were people inquiring about non-specific recreational opportunities, which was not enough to qualify it as describing a recreational activity but is still similar. An example of a recreational opportunity post can be seen below in Figure 2.

Figure 2

Although there are clear holes in how location-based subreddits are conveying civic information, the kinds of content that is being posted in regard to recreational opportunities mimics the kinds of coverage one might see in an “events calendar” section of a community or newspaper. The posts contained information about who will be there, what the event is, where it is, and when it will start.

Economic Development. Economic development was the first of the coded Friedland et. al. (2012) topics to be diverse in the qualification of sub-needs. Of the 48 posts that fulfilled the need for information on economic development, 22 (45.8%) were posted organically from non-news sources. Of the 48 posts, 24 (50%) were coded as “other,” 15 (31.2%) were coded as economic development, 5 (10.4%) were coded as job opportunities, and 3 (6.2%) were coded as small business information. None were coded as information on job training or retraining. The “other” categorization required a deeper look. There were two distinct themes in the posts coded “other.” The first were announcements of new businesses opening that did not specify that they were hiring, because if they were hiring, they would have been coded as “job opportunities.” The second were posts about local established vendors who set up during art festivals, parades, farmer’s markets, etc. An example of this can be seen in Figure 3 below.

Figure 3

Political Life. The political information category was also diverse. Of the 40 posts that fulfilled the need for information about political life, 20 (50%) were posted organically from non-news sources. Of the 40 posts, 10 (25%) were coded as being about voting and elections, 7 (17.5%) were about public meetings and outcomes, 6 (15%) were about city council or council elections, 3 (7.5%) were about state-level issues, 2 (5%) were about county government, 1 (2.5%) was about neighborhood councils, 1 (2.5%) was about political regions within a city, and 9 (22.5%) were coded “other.”

One of the most popular topics posted about in this sub-need that were not from existing news sources was how to register to vote, where to look up your voting location, and where to check if your voter’s registration is still valid. This represents a utility use, users of these location-based subreddits posting this information are providing crucial information to potential voters. There may likely be people who have participated in elections for the first time because they saw information on how to register, or were reminded about upcoming elections. This can be seen in Figure 4 below.

Figure 4

Transportation Systems. Of the 24 posts that fulfilled the need for information on transportation systems, 19 (79.1%) were posted organically from non-news sources. Of those 24 posts, 9 (37.5%) were coded as traffic and road conditions, 4 (16.6%) were coded as mass transportation, 3 (12.5%) were coded as debate over growth, and 7 (29.1%) were coded as “other.”

The most common topic in this sub-need was complaining about traffic backups, potholes, speeders, and flooding roadways. There were more posts about these complaints than were officially coded as such, because many of the posts were memes joking about falling into potholes or people who ignore riders in bike lanes. These posts that were purely jokes and memes were not coded as information fulfillment, as they are not informative. However, if they contained either some form of geographic-based warning, such as a joke about how much longer it will take someone to get to work now that so-and-so road is closed for repair, then it was included. Figure 5 represents one of these posts. The language of the headline is pointed and joking, implying that drivers in Alpharetta do not know how to properly use a roundabout. However, the linked image itself is a non-joking informational graphic about the etiquette of entering and exiting a roundabout. Despite the joking headline, this could clearly be seen as fulfilling an informational need for some.

Figure 5

Education. One of the most difficult categories to code was the education category. Of the 20 posts that fulfilled the need for information on education, 6 (30%) were posted organically from non-news sources. Of the 20 posts, 5 (25%) were coded on the quality of schools, and each of the following were coded with 1 (5%) post each: teacher performance, student academic achievement, school curricula, job training, and higher education. The criteria of school funding and school choice were not selected, and 9 (45%) posts were coded “other.” This represents one of the highest percentages of “other” within the sample.

All five of the posts on school quality came from existing local news sources, and all five were simple news stories about the “grades” of local high schools. Despite Reddit being popular with college-aged people, there was almost nothing about higher education. This is interesting, as the sample included subreddits with prominent universities within their geographic area, such as the University of Georgia, Augusta University, Georgia Southern University, the Savannah College of Art and Design, the University of West Georgia, and Valdosta State University, among others. One interpretation of this is that those universities have their own subreddits dedicated to them. The kinds of content organically posted was scattered and hard to find any useful commonalities besides posting about training sessions and community classes. This can be seen below in Figure 6.

Figure 6

Health. Health, despite not coming up very often, was also one of the more diverse categories. Of the 19 posts that fulfilled the need for information on health, 7 (36.8%) were posted organically from non-news sources. Of the 19 posts, 5 (26.3%) were coded as the spread of disease and vaccinations, 4 (21%) were coded as local health campaigns, 2 (10%) were coded as health programs and services, 2 (10%) were coded as availability of care, 1 (5.2%) was coded as family and public health, and 5 (26.3%) were coded as “other.”

Although information about diseases and vaccinations was the most-coded sub-need, all of the posts in that category went back to existing news websites. It was the “other” where this category showed its potential as a form of information spread. The “others” were often in the form of warnings, such as someone eating at a restaurant and falling ill. One example of useful organic information in this category can be seen in Figure 7 below, where a Reddit user has gone to the Cherokee County’s department of health website, collected public data on restaurants with failing health inspection grades, compiled it into a single document, converted that document into an image, and posted it to /r/CherokeeCountyGA. This is important, as it represents a user of this subreddit’s willingness to take action to share crucial information that otherwise sits on a government website. It is this user acting almost as a journalist.

Figure 7

Environment and Planning. Information on the environment and planning was the least-posted form of information fulfillment. Of the 17 posts that fulfilled the need for information on the environment and planning, 7 (41.1%) were posted organically from non-news sources. Of the 17 posts, 5 (29.4%) were coded as environmental problems, 5 (29.4%) were coded as natural habitats for recreation, 2 (11.7%) were coded as natural resource development, 1 (5.8%) was coded as water and air quality, and 1 (5.8%) was coded as environmental hazards, while only 2 (11.7%) were coded as “other.”

The categorization of these sub-needs posed a similar challenge to the sub-need of transportation. Many of the organic posts were photographs of walking trails or parks with a headline talking about how nice of a day it was. Those were not coded as being informative. However, if a post contained a photo of a walking trail and had information about where to access the trial, or how much access costs, or the conditions of the trail, that was coded as fulfilling a need. An important example of this information fulfillment can be seen in Figure 8, where someone has posted a video on how to maneuver hydraulic currents in a kayak after two kayakers died at a popular area known as “Redneck Beach” in Athens.

Figure 8

Discussion and Conclusions

R1: Do location-based subreddits contain user-created information in ways that fulfills the needs that community newspapers once did?

The results of this study indicate that although location-based subreddits are not functioning in a way to act as a one-for-one replacement for local newspapers, they do show potential to serve as a way for people to share important information about happenings in their communities, and some people are already using them in this way. There was a particular emphasis on utility. From health information about which restaurants to avoid, to how to properly maneuver a roundabout, to warnings about avoid an area after a shooting, there was content posted that a reporter for a local newspaper could easily have crafted into a news story, vetted through sources and written in newswriting style. However, the subreddits also have an issue of over-emphasis on certain topics. This will be discussed with R2.

R2: What needs and sub-needs, as categorized by the FCC and USC (Friedland, 2012), are being fulfilled by location-based subreddits?

In the same way that television news has been identified as not alleviating news deserts because they focus on crime, weather, sports and soft stories too often, perhaps the same criticism can be leveled at these location-based subreddits for focusing so much on two main topics – emergencies and civic information. And within those needs, there were very clear trends in the sub-needs. For emergencies, it was crime. What constitutes “crime” coverage was more nuanced, however. The content ranged from someone asking for help finding a stolen bike, to warning others that people are breaking into cars on a specific street, to something as serious as warning others to stay away from an area where a shooting has occurred and an armed suspect is still on the loose. The latter was likely covered by journalists in the area, but the timing on the post in Figure 1 indicates that this was a breaking event, and the post was made before journalists had the time to report on it. For civic information, it was recreational opportunities – things to do around the community. Although some may see this as “soft news,” as our society grows more and more alienated, location-based subreddits acting as the events calendar in place of a shuttered or ghost local newspaper can possibly help alleviate at least some of that problem.

Some needs and sub-needs are clearly not being met by these location-based subreddits. Environmental issues were barely discussed, and the ones that were tended to be lighthearted information about local outdoors recreation. As our society faces the impact of climate change and global warming, people in smaller communities are going to need access to credible, vetted information. Health was also barely covered. One common element of both health and environment as topics that perhaps explains why they were posted about less is that they are difficult topics that require some scientific knowledge to be able to convey the seriousness of the issues. Although this was stated earlier, the researchers would like to reiterate that the data for this study was collected prior to the COVID-19 pandemic taking full hold in the United States, and they recognize that if the data were collected today, coronavirus alone would likely be enough to increase the number of health articles.

The topic areas that were lacking in the sample also represent one of the issues that other researchers have found with user-generated content: some journalism requires access or knowledge that tends to only be bestowed to journalists (Lewis, Kaufhold & Lasorsa, 2010). Although Georgia’s robust public record laws allow all citizens access to government records, few are trained in the procedure to procure them in the way journalists are taught. That means that someone might post that a shooting has just occurred down the street and people should stay away from that area on a community subreddit, but that person is less likely to go and request an arrest report, or record interviews with police or neighbors about what happened, or go cover the ensuing criminal trial. The results indicate that community Reddit have enormous potential for fulfilling an overall “witness,” role of journalism, but less potential for the “watchdog” role without training or incentive for follow-up. The content that was the most prevalent tended to be the content that could be obtained and posted with little effort. However, there was one post that bucked that trend: the post by the individual in /r/CherokeeCountyGA who collected the failed health inspection reports of local restaurants and posted them together as one homemade database.

This research area needs to be continued in two directions. One is on the audience side. A survey should be conducted of the users of these location-based subreddits to better understand how and why they use them. That would not only help people studying news deserts get a better sense of what people are doing in areas of emerging news deserts, but would also help expand our understanding of Uses and Gratification Theory in the wider world of mass communication. The second is using the setup for this study and applying it to larger cities with established media environments to be able to compare and contrast the differences in location-based subreddits in areas with plentiful media versus areas without.

There are several important limitations that should be noted aside from the standard limitations of content analysis – the sample could always be larger. One important limitation to the long-term implication of the findings is that the researchers did not attempt to vet the information in the sample. Whereas a professional journalist working for a local newspaper will assumedly be working under professional norms and ethical guidelines, someone posting information to the location-based subreddits might be plagiarizing or fabricating the information they post. Such actions would mean that the location-based subreddits are not actually fulfilling the duty needed to act as replacement form of news within a news desert.

As news deserts continue to expand, mass communication researchers must get ahead of the problem and be able to not just assess the impact they have on communities, but also understand ways of reversing and healing those impacts. The results of this study could very well help guide the development of a training program for citizen journalists to use location-based subreddits as a platform for their work.

 

Works Cited

  • Abernathy, P. M. (2014). Saving community journalism: The path to profitability. UNC Press Books.
  • Abernathy, P. M. (2016). The rise of a new media baron and the emerging threat of news deserts. Chapel Hill, NC: Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
  • Abernathy, P. M. (2018). The expanding news desert. Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, School of Media and Journalism, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • Applegate, E., & Hoffman, C. (2017). America’s growing news deserts. Retrieved from https://www.cjr.org/local_news/american-news-deserts-donuts-local.php
  • Alexa—Top Sites in United States. (2019). Retrieved December 26, 2019, from https://www.alexa.com/topsites/countries/US
  • Atlanta Regional Commission. (2021, February 18). About the Atlanta Region. ARC. https://atlantaregional.org/atlanta-region/about-the-atlanta-region
  • Blakely, A. (2019). Expanding news deserts threaten America’s democracy with 2020 election ahead. Gateway Journalism Review, 48(354), 14-16.
  • Blumler, J. G., & Katz, E. (1974). The uses of mass communications: Current perspectives on gratifications research. Sage Publications, Inc.
  • Branswell, H. (2018, March 22). As towns lose their newspapers, disease detectives are left to fly blind. Retrieved from https://www.statnews.com/2018/03/20/news-deserts-infectious-disease/
  • Fox, J. (2019). News loses: Thousands of US communities have lost their daily papers. What is the cost to their area?. Index on Censorship, 48(1), 20-22.
  • Friedland, L., Napoli, P., Ognyanova, K., Weil, C., & Wilson III, E. J. (2012). Review of the literature regarding critical information needs of the American public. Unpublished manuscript submitted to the Federal Communications Commission. http://transition. fcc. gov/bureaus/ocbo/Final_Literature_Review. pdf, 15-19.
  • Gao, P., Lee, C., & Murphy, D. (2020). Financing dies in darkness? The impact of newspaper closures on public finance. Journal of Financial Economics135(2), 445-467.
  • Kaye, B. K., & Johnson, T. J. (2002). Online and in the Know: Uses and Gratifications of the Web for Political Information. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media46(1), 54–71.
  • Lewis, S. C., Kaufhold, K., & Lasorsa, D. L. (2010). Thinking About Citizen Journalism: The philosophical and practical challenges of user-generated content for community newspapers. Journalism Practice, 4(2), 163–179.
  • Miller, J. (2018). News deserts: No news is bad news. Urban policy 2018, 59-76.
  • Napoli, P. M., Stonbely, S., McCollough, K., & Renninger, B. (2017). Local journalism and the information needs of local communities: Toward a scalable assessment approach. Journalism Practice, 11(4), 373-395.
  • Nygren, G., Leckner, S., & Tenor, C. (2018). Hyperlocals and legacy media.
  • Paulussen, S., & Ugille, P. (2008). User Generated Content in the Newsroom: Professional and Organizational Constraints on Participatory Journalism. Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, 5(2), 24–41.
  • Roughton, B. (2019, October 11). Opinion: News desert spreading across Georgia, the South. Retrieved from https://www.ajc.com/news/opinion/opinion-news-desert-spreading-across-georgia-the-south/E4toqRdT9wWB744YEKjpIM/
  • Ruggiero, T. E. (2000). Uses and gratifications theory in the 21st century. Mass Communication & Society3(1), 3–37. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15327825MCS0301_02
  • Sundar, S. S., & Limperos, A. M. (2013). Uses and grats 2.0: New gratifications for new media. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media57(4), 504–525.
  • Watson, B. R., & Cavanah, S. (2015). Community information needs: A theory and methodological framework. Mass Communication and Society18(5), 651-673.
  • Widman, J. (2020, March 11). What is Reddit? Retrieved from https://www.digitaltrends.com/web/what-is-reddit/
  • Williams, D. (2020, December). RURAL NEWSPAPERS: Georgia newspapers say “news deserts” are exaggerated, giving ammo to local officials who want to weaken public-notice laws. Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. http://irjci.blogspot.com/p/rural-newspapers.html

About the Authors

Jeffrey K. Riley is an assistant professor at Georgia Southern University

Holly S. Cowart is a lecturer at Georgia Southern University

The Reddit Oa
Categories
Uncategorized

Ryan Dohrn’s TCCJ Revenue Workshop Presentation

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1QhOLGG0qTl0F0D6id9qZon8ipTMcrtmr/view?fbclid=IwAR2B1CzDke8qCrU47RVcOMAyjKJJhfWX1vYFczep_ugA2eN8PLcmoZK-Clk

Categories
Uncategorized

Mike Obert: Seven Tips for the “New Normal” of Selling

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.

7 Tips for the “New Normal” of Selling

Categories
Uncategorized

TCCJ Online Revenue Workshop Program

TCCJ Revenue Workshop: Making Money in the “New Normal”

9 a.m.

Welcome and introductions

Kathryn Jones and Dan Malone

TCCJ Co-directors, live from the Texan News broadcast studio at

Tarleton State University in Stephenville

 

“Re-Igniting the Post-Covid Sales Conversation With Advertisers” 

Ryan Dohrn

Media sales consultant/ad coach and host of “Ad Sales Nation” podcast

COVID-19 was devastating for most local and regional business owners.  So, how do we as sales pros sympathize, but get back to that much-needed marketing conversation?  Media sales coach Ryan Dohrn will share 7 ways to re-ignite the conversation with style, ideas, and realistic expectations.  From handling objections like COVID has killed our business to the objection of I am too busy now to explaining the “marketing bump” to email templates to perfect post-COVID prospecting times to revised pricing options.  Come prepared to laugh and learn from a media sales pro that still sells today and has touched over half a billion dollars in ad sales over his 30-year career.

10 a.m.

“New Strategies for a New Time”

Kevin James

Director of Special Projects Sales

Moser Community Media, LLC (Brenham)

Kevin will share “out of the box” success stories during this “new normal.” He describes himself as a “positive, upbeat, ‘make lemons out of lemonade’ kind of salesperson and leader,” so Kevin’s presentation will focus on creative ways to engage customers and make deals at a time when so many traditional advertisers face economic challenges themselves.

11 a.m.

“The New Normal of Selling”

Mike Obert

Managing Partner – Sales

Open-Look.com, Richardson, Texas

When so many people are working remotely, traditional workdays are upside down. For sales people, that means having a fluid schedule throughout the day to work in your hours of prospecting and maintaining existing clients. It also means looking for new means to reach readers on behalf of advertisers. Mike will discuss how to use video and leverage social media in the new normal of selling.

Noon

“A Year for the Record Books – What’s Working? What’s Not?”

Moderated by Dan Malone and Kathryn Jones

TCCJ Co-directors

The pandemic and statewide lockdown of businesses crashed local economies and put intense new pressures on community journalism outlets and their bottom lines. Newspapers saw website traffic increase, but traditional ad sales plummet. Some were able to secure federal Paycheck Protection Program loans, but that money ran out fast. Some were able to get new grants offered by Facebook and other sources. Some had to cut frequency of print publication. Many had to scramble and find creative ways to survive. Attendees are invited to share their stories about what worked, what did not, and how their business models are changing.

Speaker Biographies

Ryan Dohrn

Ryan is the founder of media sales strategy firm Brain Swell Media and the creator of the 360 Ad Sales System taught to over 20,000 media sales professionals in 7 countries. Ryan works with over 200 newspapers per year and has a deep passion for the community newspaper business. Ryan’s 30-year media sales and marketing career includes leadership roles at PennWell Publishing, Morris Publishing, Disney/ABC TV and The NY Times Company. He is an Emmy Award winner, business book author and has been featured in USA Today and on Forbes.com.

 

Kevin James

Hailing from Greenville, Texas, the son of a newspaper pressman and a mother who faithfully read her hometown newspaper daily, Kevin has printer’s ink flowing in his veins. He joined MCM in January 2014 as Director of Special Projects, Digital, and Sales Training, and heads up a groupwide VIP initiative.

Although Kevin was heavily involved in his elementary, junior high and high school newspapers, he began his “official” newspaper career as a retail sales rep with the Rockwall Texas Journal-Success in 1993.

In 1997, Kevin was recruited to an advertising account executive opportunity with The Dallas Morning News, working print and digital advertising and focusing on the travel and tourism, real estate, faith-based accounts and automotive segments. After marrying an “Okie,” in 2003 he accepted a position with The Daily Oklahoman/NewsOK.com in Oklahoma City as a digital advertising specialist, developing their first-ever million-dollar digital sales territory.

Moving to Austin 2010 for personal/family reasons, Kevin accepted a multi-media executive position with Cox Media Group/ The Austin American-Statesman where he earned several awards and honors. In 2012 he was recruited to rebuild a major and key accounts territory with Hearst Media/San Antonio Express-News.

In 2013, Kevin was recruited by Stephens Media Corporate Division in Las Vegas, Nevada, as a digital sales consultant/catalyst for their training and sales efforts for their papers nationwide. Kevin worked with such papers as The Las Vegas Review Journal; The Daily World in Aberdeen, Washington; The Sherman Herald-Democrat in Sherman, Texas; The Examiner-Enterprise in Bartlesville, OK; and the Ashboro Courier-Tribune in Ashboro, North Carolina.

Kevin also has served as advertising directors for two local Texas papers – his hometown newspaper, The Greenville Herald Banner (2001), and The Williamson County Sun in Georgetown (2011-2012).

 Mike Obert

Mike began his publishing career in 1992 and has specialized in monetizing magazines through ad sales, distribution and other creative revenue streams. In 2009, Mike began developing offshore publishing solutions for a US-based niche media company out of the Philippines. In three short years, Mike noticed a void in the industry and lack of reliable outsourced options for all publishers, which ignited the vision to create Open Look.

In 2012, Mike and partners formed Open Look, turning void into opportunity. Two years later, Mike created a neighborhood network of community publications that is directly mailed and driven by ad sales. Currently, Mike drives the direction and innovation of Open Look, ensuring the services remain valuable and relevant for the ever-evolving niche media industry.

 

Categories
Front Page Uncategorized

Virtual Summer Revenue Workshop, Aug. 14

The annual Summer Revenue Workshop conducted by the Texas Center for Community Journalism has been moved to a virtual format for Friday, Aug. 14. It will no longer be held in person at the Hangar Hotel Conference Center in Fredericksburg due to the spread of COVID-19 throughout Texas. However, we’re planning an excellent workshop that you can tune into online. It also will be recorded and archived on the TCCJ website.

This year’s timely theme is “Making Money in the ‘New Normal.’”

As businesses reopen, it’s time to get back to sales conversations. But when so many people are working remotely, their days are upside down. The pandemic and statewide lockdown of businesses crashed local economies and put intense new pressures on community journalism outlets and their bottom lines. Newspapers saw website traffic increase, but traditional ad sales plummet. Some were able to secure federal Paycheck Protection Program loans, that money ran out fast. Some were able to get new grants offered by Facebook and other sources. Some had to cut frequency of print publication. Many had to scramble and find creative ways to survive.

To address these concerns, the line-up of speakers will include Kevin James, director of Special Projects Sales, Moser Community Media, LLC (Brenham); Mike Obert of Open-Look.com in Richardson; and via Skype, Ryan Dohrn, media sales consultant/coach and host of “Ad Sales Nation” podcast. They and TCCJ Co-directors Dan Malone and Kathryn Jones Malone will share insights and advice on new strategies for selling in the “new normal,” latest trends in digital traffic and online ad sales;  social media vs. digital revenues, and alternative sources of revenue.

The workshop will end with an open discussion about some of the creative products and strategies Texas newspapers and their websites have used in this extraordinary time of change. Please share what you’ve tried that worked, what didn’t, and how business models are changing. We can all learn from each other. Email Kathryn front or inside pages, advertising, promotions or links to pages: kathrynjones1956@gmail.com.

Details:

WHERE: We’re looking at video conferencing options.

WHEN:  Friday, Aug. 14; times TBA

COST:  FREE. Just fill out the registration form below so we can send you information about the workshop and how to sign on.

REGISTER HERE: Please fill out the registration form. If more than one person from a news organization plans to attend, please register individually.

Virtual Summer Revenue Workshop, Friday, Aug. 14

Virtual Summer Revenue Workshop, Friday, Aug. 14

Sending

 

Categories
Ask an Expert Questions and Answers

Can school board use OMA update as justification for restricting public comments?

Question: My school district is claiming that it’s restricting public comment to agenda items due to the recent law (they were previously allowing any comments). This seems like a gross misrepresentation of a change designed to guarantee a right rather than restrict it. Is my understanding correct?

Answer: Looks like your school district is reading the update to the Open Meetings Act in a very literal way that undermines the purpose of the revision in the 2019 legislative session.

We’re talking about HB 2840, which requires government bodies to allow people to comment on agenda items. Yes, the purpose of that was to allow more comments, not fewer, but another section of the revision says the government “may adopt reasonable rules regarding the public’s right to address the body … including rules that limit the total amount of time that a member of the public may address the body on a given item.” The intent of that was to keep the public from wasting time or basically shutting down a session by talking endlessly – not to eliminate public comment time outside of agenda items altogether.

Here’s the bill text: https://capitol.texas.gov/tlodocs/86R/billtext/html/HB02840S.htm

I’d read that to mean that “people may not speak on anything but agenda items” (as your school district seems to be doing) is not a “reasonable rule” under the law. That would at least be up for interpretation by the AG, and may be worth challenging the ISD on. The Texas Municipal League reads the bill as permitting but not requiring government bodies to allow open comment, as long as the body isn’t restricting public criticism of the body (another passage in the OMA revision). Read this from TML counsel Zindia Thomas, who I respect on open records/meetings matters as acting in good faith on interpreting these things, rather than being reflexively defensive of her organization’s members: https://www.tml.org/DocumentCenter/View/1237/HB-2840-Public-Comment-on-Agenda-Items

In short, I’d suggest asking your school district to return to allowing an open comment session on non-agenda items, arguing that dismissing public comment altogether is not a “reasonable rule” under the HB 2840 revisions. It may at least be worth seeing if the AG would issue a letter opinion on it. It may also be a call to the AG hotline on open meetings, 512-478-6736.

Categories
Community news

Reflections after a decade in community journalism: It isn’t supposed to be easy

I am entering my second decade at the helm of the Whitesboro News-Record.

Granted, I’ve left a few brief times and come back, but all roads have led us back here.  This January will mark the 11th anniversary of my first being named the editor and a lot has changed for me in that time.

We have one more child than we did back then and the twin babies we had back then aren’t babies anymore.

I managed to earn a master’s degree along the way.

We were able to buy a house.

I am the only face in this office that was here when I first started more than 10 years ago.

Time marches on.

I thumb through the archives each week and see the faces of people we’ve lost over the past 10 years. I was blessed to have known them all.

I think ahead another 10 years and choke up at the number of beloved community members we hold dear today who won’t be there with us then.

The community newspaper does a few things: We report on births. We report on graduations. We report on marriages. We report on deaths. We report on all the highlights in a person’s life. We tell the stories of the people with whom we share our corner of the planet.

We do all these things together with you. We live, love, grieve and grow together, as a community.

It is these connections that keep me in this business.

It is these relationships I hold so dear. Life is short and we must cherish each other.

I was reminded of this last Wednesday when the police scanner reported a seven-car accident on Hwy. 377.

It was pouring rain and we hadn’t gone to print yet. I knew what I needed to do.

I’ve covered too many of these scenes, but never one quite like this. It was dark, and wet, and cold. There was wreckage everywhere and I couldn’t make sense of it.

Over the years I’ve developed a habit when walking onto an accident scene where I know someone has lost their life.

I find a first responder I know well— a familiar face— and I ask, “Is it anyone we know?”

Too often, it is.

This is where the lines of objectivity in responsible journalism can get skewed by emotion.

And this was the case last week. There was a man declared dead as a result of this massive pile-up. I found out later I knew him.

Albeit, years ago, but I knew him.

He was a high school boss. I hauled hay for him and fed his cows on occasion.

I even once sold him a piece of furniture I had built.

It’s times like these covering the news in your community hits home.

It’s certainly not the first time it’s happened either.

As community journalists, we sometimes must report events that are the absolute low points in someone’s life. And it is often people we know.

I hesitate to offer examples about each and every one of these experiences in the course of my career— in the spirit of not reliving them, but they are plentiful and they are hard to deal with.

This job can leave you feeling physically beaten at the end of a day.

The degree of tragedy in which you encountered with a given story can correlate to this beating.

I have been left feeling like I’ve literally been kicked in the gut more than once.

Maybe I internalize the pain of others too much. Maybe I feel guilty about having to make news of their sorrow.

Maybe I wish all news was good news.

Last Wednesday was one of these times.

After we put the paper to bed that night, I couldn’t rest my thoughts.

I took pen to notebook and jotted down a few words:

“And just like that, the emergency scanner goes off. Seven car pile-up on the highway. At least one deceased. Calling for the jaws of life. Not enough ambulances available. Bystanders pitching in. Performing CPR. And the community newspaper is there to document it all. The hard work of heroes and the sorrow of families. Seven lives changed forever and at least one life ended. I’ve been doing this a long time and it will never be easy.”

That last sentence got me.

“Will this ever be easy?” I asked myself.

Almost immediately I answered myself, “It can’t be easy. I can’t let it become easy.”

The day this becomes easy is the day I’ve lost empathy for people in times of sorrow. The day we lose empathy is the day we need to be doing something else. We can’t serve our communities properly without proper empathy.

No matter your line of work, no matter your passion — we all have an effect on the people we serve. Our community. Our tribe.

No matter your work, you serve. We were put here to serve others.

The day we lose our empathy is the day we cease to serve.

Don’t lose your empathy. Service is not supposed to be easy.

 

Categories
Engagement Newspaper management

Great ideas for engaging with your community

In explaining my work, I sometimes say that there are thousands of really good journalists in rural America, but all too often they are the only person in their newsroom that fits that description. They suffer from the isolation of rurality, with fewer opportunities than urbanites to rub shoulders and exchange ideas with their professional peers.

That observation applies to independent rural publishers, too. They may attend state newspaper meetings, but there’s nothing like the National Newspaper Association convention, where editors and publishers from New England, the North Woods, the Great Plains, the Corn Belt, the Deep South, the Intermountain West, the Pacific Coast and other regions exchange ideas. That’s especially important for the approximately one-third of weekly newspapers not owned by groups, which can be sources of ideas (and instruction). Get them together, and the love to help each other.

This was on display at the Great Ideas Exchange at the National Newspaper Association’s annual convention in Milwaukee Oct. 3. There were too many ideas to share in this limited space, but here are some themes and standouts:

Engagement with the audience is a key task these days, and some circulation ideas at the session were good examples. The Lancaster News in South Carolina delivers to funeral homes 10 copies of the paper for distribution to families and friends who want a copy of an obituary. With a sponsor, the copies count as paid circulation.

The paper also gives all its yearly subscribers a page of coupons (usually $5 each) worth a total of $25, and is trying to get to $50, the price of a one-year-subscription, Publisher Susan Rowell said. The promotion has converted a lot of sox-month subscribers, and “You do something for your loyal customers just to keep ‘em,” she said.

Effective engagement means taking every opportunity to build loyalty, and that includes people in the newsroom.

The North Scott Press of Eldridge, Iowa, asks subjects of its stories, “Where do you read the paper?” That indirect approach is better than asking if they subscribe or buy it regularly. If their answer indicates that they don’t, the next question is “Would you like to receive it at home?” and offer a three-month free trial, Publisher Bill Tubbs says. The staffer making the contact gets $3 for a free trial and $7 for a paid subscription.

Many newspapers have made magazines and directories good revenue sources. The Echo Press in Alexandria, Minnesota, produces a Churches of Douglas County magazine every other year, charges $50 for a listing and gives each church 10 copies. Some papers provide membership lists that the paper uses to solicit sponsorships, Publisher Jody Hanson said. “It’s a really good reference guide,” she said, adding that some churches initially declined to participate, but now say “Don’t ever do it without us.”

The Echo Press also hires a Santa Claus for three hours after school, asks parents to bring a food item to donate to the needy, takes photos of Santa with the kids, provides a link to the pictures and prints them in a holiday-greetings section with kids’ letters to Santa.

Hanson also had a good idea for the typical “progress edition” many papers publish in winter when ads are slow: Along with features on businesses, list building permits and related reports from local governments, which are documentary evidence of community development.

Lettie Lister of the Black Hills Pioneer in Spearfish, South Dakota, said she was told

told that “progress sections were dead,” but theirs attracts many non-regular advertisers. It’s not called a progress edition, but “Our Towns,” which sounds like something that people will keep a long time, adding to its ad value.

The Pioneer marked its 140th anniversary by mining its historic archives in the last quarter of the 19th century, starting with reports of the battle at Little Big Horn. The paper did a feature every Saturday, then a compilation without ads but a $10 price tag.

A newspaper’s big anniversaries can be celebrated with a section that also celebrates lesser anniversaries of other businesses, said Peggy Scott of the Leader in Festus, Missouri. It marked its 20th and 25th anniversaries and chose the most compelling stories of other businesses, with no repeats between the two.

Don’t run a bunch of extra photos without considering opportunities for a sponsored page, spread or even a section, said Mary Huber of the Archbold (Ohio) Buckeye. Local schools have many events that lend themselves to this: athletics, theatrical presentations, science fairs and so on.

Local festivals are natural opportunities for special sections, but the Grant County Herald in Minnesota takes up a few notches with a $100 treasure hunt for a hidden “newsbox” with a coin, promoted with a spread of ads with clues to its location. Almost every advertiser participates. The last clue is posted at the Herald office during the festival, and dozens of people line up to get it.

Bill Ostendorf of Creative Circle Media Solutions urged publishers to do a total-market-circulation edition once or twice a year: “Advertising more than pays for it, and it’s a really god promotional thing” for circulation.

I added that my institute encourages newspapers to include a health and wellness section in its TMC editions; our research shows that people need and want health information, and are more likely to subscribe to the newspaper if they know it regularly has such information. Also, most health-care providers have a budget for advertising, and newspapers are leaving a lot of that money on the table.

One of the session’s more interesting ideas came from Dick Seibel of the Silver City (New Mexico) Daily Press and Independent. In New Mexico, each county has a lobbying day during legislative sessions, and his Grant County has long had one of the more ostentatious. The paper does a special section about the county’s attractions and its legislative priorities, printing 3,000 extra copies that are distributed to legislators and other officials and around the capital of Santa Fe. Seibel said the project reinforces the importance of the newspaper to movers and shakers. And that’s what makes this idea worth mentioning. Wish we could have included them all!

Categories
good news and bad news

The world isn’t as mean as the news might indicate

I know this may seem ironic coming from a newsman, but does the news make you feel good on a regular basis?

Television news broadcasts can be depressing. Your social media feed can be worse.

Admittedly, some news in your community newspaper can bring you down from time to time as well.

More and more often, people may feel more afraid, angry, cynical, and hopeless after watching the evening news.

Broadcast news has developed over the years to compete with entertainment for TV ratings.

Back in the days of Walter Cronkite, the evening news was a loss leader.

CBS made money on “I Love Lucy,” not the “Evening News.”

Not anymore. Network news is a cash cow these days.

As a result, they tend to sensationalize danger and wrongdoing, evoking fears of corruption and impending doom.

Media nerds like me learned in graduate school about the negative effects this has on society. But the implications for everyday people are worth discussing. A communications writer, George Gerbner, coined a phrase for this: “Mean World Syndrome.” It deals with the impact watching television has on how we see the world.

The Mean World Syndrome goes one step further, describing the perception that the world is more dangerous than it really is, based on what’s shown in mass media.

There are thousands of studies that suggest a strong connection between television watching and aggression.

Over the decades, much has been done to shield children from violence on television, but some say that is missing the point. Instead of focusing on ways to hide the violence, some question the ways in which the violence is portrayed.

Violence on television and video games can normalize aggressive behavior and make viewers become desensitized.

Gerbner said the mind then becomes “militarized.”

The more dangerous the news shows the world to be, the more we believe them. We become fearful and anxious, depend more on authority, and take other precautionary measures.

“Growing up in a violence-laden culture breeds aggressiveness in some and desensitization, insecurity, mistrust, and anger in most. Punitive and vindictive action against dark forces in a mean world is made to look appealing, especially when presented as quick, decisive, and enhancing our sense of control and security,“ Gerbner once said.

Sound familiar?

He wrote that back in the 1970s.

Where, then, have we come now?

Did you know that crime is at a 30-year low in this country?

We are safer than we’ve ever been.

In every category: murders, rapes, drug use… every category… crime is down.

You couldn’t tell it by watching the 10 o’clock news.

The average newscast is about 26 minutes. There are about six minutes for weather and five for sports.

That leaves the station 19 minutes to grab and keep your attention.

The advertising is more effective that way.

When 15 minutes of the newscast is doom and gloom, leaving only two minutes, after commercials, for something positive — what is the mind supposed to think?

I’ve been guilty of this too.

As a newsman, I know what sells newspapers. A terrible car wreck or controversy at the school board meeting wins every time.

It is what it is.

But we err on the side of positive whenever possible.

I don’t think the TV guys do that as much.

At the end of the day, you are responsible for the media you consume. If you take in violence, you will be in a violent mood and that is not good.

We need to keep up with the world around us, but take it with a grain a salt. For every story about a violent crime, there are thousands of stories about communities coming together.

Seek out those stories.

Seek out the good stuff. There is always more good than there is bad.

Categories
Circulation Future of news Subscriptions

Darrell Royal was right, and newspapers should pay attention

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.