Want to cover local? Then you'd better BE local!

Allow me to suggest one more mistake that the newspaper industry made that we shouldn’t allow the slip down the memory hole. It was a practice that I am sure struck many newsroom managers as a smart one… at the time. But it ultimately helped sever ties between publications and their communities, leading to less informed, less engaging coverage that left readers – and advertisers – with fewer reasons to support their local paper.

What was this practice? It was conducting national job searches to fill local reporting positions.

When I began my journalism career, J-school advisers told us to expect to start out at a smaller paper in a national chain, then try to work our way up to larger newsrooms, bigger cities, and more desirable places to live. You had to “pay your dues” in some small town before you could move up to a major metro.

The model was that of an assembly line, where you started by proving yourself on low-risk tasks that weren’t particularly critical to the overall operation, before moving up to higher-speed, higher-pressure jobs with national visibility. (By broadening the candidate pool for every local reporting job, this helped chains keep labor costs down, too.)

But while the smallest papers in a chain might be next to invisible to the suits in corporate HR, they were real, and important, to the people living in the communities they served. Most of those readers weren’t trying to “move up” to some bigger city. They were home, and happy there.

The old newsroom hiring model saw the nation’s communities as interchangeable rungs on a corporate ladder. But, despite the billion-dollar efforts of companies such as Walmart, Target, McDonald’s, and Applebee’s, people in those cities and towns continue to resist their commoditization. Sure, they shop at Walmart and eat at Applebee’s, but only because they’re cheaper than alternatives. (Which often were run out of business by big-chain outlets operating at a loss until they killed off that competition.) Cookie-cutter newspapers could hold onto their local customers only so long as they offered the cheapest way to get information, too.

When online competitors such as Craigslist and Yahoo! News gave readers a cheaper alternative for classified ads and national news headlines, they bailed. And understandably so. It’s hard to appeal to readers’ sense of loyalty to local voices when those voices are recent college grads who’ve only lived in the community for a couple years and who flee the state whenever they get three or more consecutive days off. Those new hires didn’t grow up in the community. They barely know anyone outside the newsroom and the official sources they encounter on their beats. And frankly, they don’t care, either. They’re looking to “move up,” and get out of town.

If you’re a local, you might as well get your local news from a discussion board. At least the people posting there actually know the town, send their kids to school there, and are planning to stick around a while.

My first full-time job in the news industry was in Omaha, Nebraska – a community I’d never stepped foot in before my job interview at the paper. To my surprise, the paper offered me a gig, and with my first student loan payment looming, I took it. I had no business writing for anyone in Omaha, or the states of Nebraska or Iowa. Hey, I tried my best, but I didn’t know the names, the places, the people or the unique issues that mattered to anyone who’d grown up in that state. So I took the hint when the paper tried to run me out of town and eventually rented a truck to move to a city my wife and I knew and loved – her hometown, Denver.

(I worked there for nearly four years until I got recruited to a job in my hometown, Los Angeles, where I continue to live today.)

So as we look for new companies to emerge and redefine the journalism industry online, let’s hope those new leaders won’t make this same mistake, too. Readers deserve writers who are as invested in the community as they are.

And if that expression of idealism does nothing for you as a cold-hearted capitalist, allow me to frame the issue another way: You can’t collect a premium price for a bargain-basement product.

If you’re producing product in the cheapest way possible, you’ll only hold your market share so long as you offer the lowest price available. (Walmart’s learning this the hard way as its bargain-hunting customer base begins to abandon it for dollar stores.) Trust me, even if you think that the cheapest way to run a newsroom is with fresh college grads desperate for a job, they’re still more expensive than outsourcing to writers in Bangalore watching Web cams. Or script kiddies in Eastern Europe writing scraper algorithms. If you want to publish using actual live, local journalists writing your publication, you’ll never be able to operate at lower costs than your online competition. To survive as a business, you’ll need the higher income that only a premium product can command.

So your local writers better really be local writers, people are from – and of – that community. This goes for niche topic sites, too, and not just for geographically focused publications. Writers for niche sites must be insiders of the community they cover, as well – individuals with passion for and personal experience in the topic they cover.

What does this mean? If you’re a manager at a national news chain, it’s time to zero out the relocation budget, if you haven’t already. Make local publications hire exclusively from candidates in their local markets. It’s time to reconnect with those communities. Promote from within at your titles, too. If “outsiders” really want to work at one of your publications, insist that they move to that community on their own, first.

For journalists, it’s time to make an investment in your future by relocating to the community where you want to live and work, if you’re not there already. Then start blogging as soon as you arrive. Build the audience that you will leverage into either your own publishing business or a job at an established local publication.

For journalism students, do the same. Start your career right by going to the best J-school you can get into in the city (or state) where you want to live and work. If your goal is to work in niche-topic publications, rather than covering a geographic community, go ahead and look at big national J-schools. But select the one that also has the best available program in the field you want to cover, too. Either way, immerse yourself in the community you’ll be covering. Only by being in and of the community you want to cover can you make yourself an attractive candidate to the smart publishers who recognize the need to remain connected to their communities.

The market is speaking to us. It wants the era of clueless, disconnected, outsider coverage in journalism to be over. And thank goodness for that. Let’s make it happen.

How to use your interviewing skills to trend on Twitter

Journalists can be their own worst enemies when they try to interact with their audience online. If you think that the online medium somehow fundamentally changes the way that people interact, and that you need to adopt a new set of principles for interviewing and interacting with people online, you’re just setting yourself up for failure.

It’s like watching an actor psyche himself out before going on stage, or a golfer giving herself a harsh set of the yips when approaching the green. Journalists I’ve met and worked with too often talk themselves out of their natural state and familiar skills when they start thinking about online interactivity. And those fears of failure quickly become self-fulfilling.

Here’s a success story story for you to consider, instead. Not to get all hokey on you, but I do believe that if you’re thinking about success when you interact with your readers, you’re putting yourself in a better place than if you go into conversations with negative thoughts. The key take-away from this success story is that it happened by using good, old-fashioned, print-era, j-school techniques for doing interviews. No special “online” skills required.

Here we go: Last week, I decided to get more active on Twitter by hosting an afternoon “Twitter chat” each weekday. (Okay, I hear people freaking out now. “You said this didn’t require any special online skills, Robert!” Chill. Stay with me.)

I got the idea after stumbling into a couple fun back-and-forth chats with a few of my followers in recent weeks. One time I threw a question out there, and another I responded to someone else’s. In both cases, others joined in with their answers and we had a nice conversation for the better part of an hour.

While I love Twitter as an RSS replacement – a handy way to push headline feeds out to willing readers – the medium’s also a perfect one for this type of focused, real-time conversation. You don’t need a pay for some special chat tool, and the 140-character limit forces everyone to get to a point efficiently.

So I figured, why wait for these moments just to happen? Why not schedule some conversations, and let my readers know when to expect them? The trouble with these types of planned events, of course, is that they too often come across as too planned. It’s like going to a party where the host has overscripted every element of the event. Who wants to be told when the fun starts?

This isn’t some network broadcast interview, where advance work has squeezed all potential for spontaneity from the conversation. Instead of coming to each Twitter chat with a list of canned questions to ask, I kicked it off with a single question, then let the conversation evolve from there.

Listen, then react. Probe. Direct. Test. Challenge.


Eventually, something will click. C’mon – we’re all confident when doing an interview with a source. Don’t let a lack of comfort with Twitter or any other online medium rob you of that confidence. Interviewing is interviewing. If you can elicit insight, passion, and emotion from a source offline, you can do it online, too. And those reactions will help your conversation connect with a broader audience.

The interaction never starts right away. I’ve needed at least four tweets to get the conversation going. And more times than not, my original topic dies in just as many tweets after that. So what? Find what makes your interviewees come alive. Then go there. You’ve done this before.

By the third day of my Tweet chats, we trended nationwide in the United States.

Sure, it was silly. A conversation about travel planning mutated into a bunch of gags about theme park attraction names. But it was a perfect diversion for a late Friday afternoon, and the audience was looking for fun, so I helped a few leaders in the conversation steer it there. Yet it wouldn’t have happened if I’d stubbornly restricted the event to a pre-planned script. Or if I’d been too inexperienced with interviewing to pick up on the potential in what looked like a mistake from a reader with only a dozen or so followers. But it was there. And when we followed it, dozens of lurkers jumped in, brought their followers, and we were trending 20 minutes later. (Search for #disneybudgetcuts for the whole thing, if you must.)

Of course, the trend list shouldn’t be every publication’s goal. But better engagement should be. I’ve long said that journalists have the unique set of skills to succeed in social media. Engagement and communication are our business. So don’t let a change in medium psych you out. Try a regularly scheduled Twitter chat with your followers and let your interviewing skills shine. Talk about whatever. Just use it as an excuse to get together with your followers, and talk.

Sometimes you have to cut back to move forward

If you think that innovation is just about creating new products and services, you’re missing what might be the most important step in leading a publication forward.

A publication makes its greatest progress not when it introduces new products and services but when it shows the discipline to leave tired or failing efforts behind. You must fight the inertia that’s holding you back.

This month I began shutting down what where once the most popular services on my family’s violin website. While these were the first services we offered on the site, and the ones that defined us to our early audience, they’d become a major time drain for me, and were failing to leverage any significant income for the site.

Making the decision to close these services not only created an opportunity for me to devote more time to the stuff that is working on the site, it also forced me to confront the reasons why these services weren’t thriving anymore. An innovator who’s also designing and launching, but never taking a look back at her work – axe in hand – never learns any valuable lessons from the audience and customers she’s trying to serve.

When my wife and I launched the violin website, neither of us had time to do much with it. So I coded up some automated directories, which any registered member of the site could join – one for teachers, another for shops, and later, one for camps and summer festivals. The directories provided content for the site that readers valued, and the chance to be in the directories gave people a compelling reason to register with the site.

Years later, after my wife began spending more time writing for, editing, and coaching contributors to the site, those old directories fell behind our discussion board and blogs in pageview and visitor traffic. Sponsors wanted to be part of those blogs, interviews, and original feature articles on the site. I couldn’t get anyone to sponsor the directory pages, and the click-through data from those channels were just atrocious.

And yet, the directories began eating more and more of my time. No longer were interested violinists joining the site to get access to the directories, now they were attracting sweatshop spammers from around the world. Spammers looking for free backlinks to their scams and affiliate storefronts were polluting our listings with thousands of submitted entries that had nothing to do with the violin.

At first, I manually deleted or blocked the submissions. Then I started writing scripts to block them, or mass purge them after the fact, if they’d gotten through. But the spammers kept getting more sophisticated in their attacks on the site, and frankly, I got tired trying to stay ahead of them.

For what? For directory pages that were hardly unique any longer? When we began, no teachers’ associations had membership directories online. Now hundreds did. Other listings of summer camps and music festivals abounded. Directories aren’t what we provide best anymore. That’d be our original interviews, features, blogs and discussion board – in short, our editorial content. So why not ditch the effort to prop up failing directories and spend our time and effort building more great original content instead?

The only directory we had that retained much unique value was our business directory. So I salvaged that by converting it to a paid directory. If violin shops want in now, they must pay us an annual fee. That effectively eliminated not only the spammers, but also small, undercapitalized shops that really couldn’t handle inquiries from our global audience.

By the way, I can’t recommend enough that local and niche Web publishers develop a business directory for their advertising customers. With so many spam-laden business directories polluting the Internet, readers appreciate a well-targeted, up-to-date directory that lists only real businesses serving a specific community. And business customers are willing to pay to be in a directory that’s spam-free and promoted to a real audience of engaged community members instead of drive-by Web searchers. A directory is an easy sell to a local business owner who can’t spell “CPM” and doesn’t want to hassle with a complicated banner ad campaign, too.

But I wouldn’t have been in position to create that new paid directory for our site (which has led to five-figure annual income for us), if I’d been satisfied to leave our old directories be. By picking up the axe and taking it to the directories, I chopped away a lot of waste that had been covering up a better opportunity for our site.

So innovation involves not just creation, but destruction as well. What are the old pages, services, products and habits that you or your organization is investing significant time and money to maintain for your publication, only for insignificant revenue or other value in return?

Swing your axe thoughtfully, though. I gave our directories over 10 years before cutting them down. They had their run. Killing a new service before giving it a decent chance to find a customer base can cost you far more than leaving a dying service to linger. But once you’ve given it your best shot or a service has run its course, don’t let fear or apathy keep you from killing a project that’s sucking money or time, or polluting your pages with inferior content.

And once you’ve given something a shot, don’t kick yourself if someone else makes it work. Remember, ideas are worthless. If someone else executed an idea in a way you couldn’t, well, good for them. Go find an idea you can execute with success. Focus on what you and your organization do best, and let your axe keep your way forward clear.