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 Outdated content that nobody needs, nobody will pay for, deserted by advertisers that will realize that we are losing ground, not having anything new, unique, and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.

By Kathryn Jones Malone

Kathryn Jones Malone is co-director of the Texas Center for Community Journalism. She began her career as a staff writer at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, then worked as a staff writer for the Dallas Times Herald and The Dallas Morning News; as a contract writer for The New York Times; as a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly magazine; as editor of the Glen Rose Reporter; and as a freelance writer for numerous state, regional and national magazines. She teaches journalism at Tarleton State University.