How metro newsrooms can recapture their local dominance

Proliferating blogs and micro-sites are producing so much local news, hard and soft, that the continuing shrinkage and even death of metro papers will leave no troubling void in metro coverage, Mark Potts concludes in an extensively linked post on his Recovering Journalist blog. Potts comes close to putting metros collectively in the past tense. They can’t make a successful transition from print to the Internet, he says, because all they offer are “your basic one-size-fits all metro newspaper Web site.”

But in this case the one size – large – is the right one. The metros’ problem is they don’t know how to exploit their size. For all their cutbacks, surviving metros still have considerable staff and other resources that could be mobilized to do what sweat-equity blogs and micro-sites can’t do nearly as well or at all.

A story crying out for attention is what’s behind America’s broken health-care system. Most health-care coverage comes out of Washington, but the real story of waste and profiteering is taking place in thousands of communities around the U.S. In its June 8-15 issue, the New Yorker zoomed in on health care in one community – McAllen, a city in southern Texas near the Rio Grande River border with Mexico whose metro area has a population of 750,000. The article, by Atul Gawande, said that in 2006, Medicare spent an average of $15,000 on each of its McAllen enrollees – twice the national average and well over the $12,000 wages of the average McAllen resident.

One big reason is that McAllen’s physicians are entrepreneurs as much as they are healers. One local hospital’s medical campus is packed with state-of-the-art health-care centers (specializing in surgery, heart cancer, imaging) owned by the hospital’s doctors.

Yet Gawande, a writer and also physician, wrote there was no evidence that this gold-plated care makes McAllen residents any healthier than people elsewhere. In fact, the outcome was just the opposite: “Medicare ranks hospitals on twenty-five metrics of care. On all but two of these, McAllen’s five largest hospitals performed worse, on average, than El Paso’s.”

What’s especially fascinating about Gawande’s piece is that it’s not built mainly around statistics – the way the media usually cover health care. Its old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting – the kind that one-person and other small websites can’t and don’t usually try to do. But that’s exactly the reporting that metro newspapers, despite their shrinking staffs, still have the potential to do well. Size matters.

But first, metros should quit wasting resources trying to cover everything, and thereby serving up, every day, the same thin reportorial soup that satisfies no one. Leave local restaurants and related coverage to Yelp! Don’t try to compete with on the local-local news front where Web-ified weeklies and micro-sites have firmly planted their flags. And why should papers hire clever typists to review movies – like the bankrupt Minneapolis Star-Tribune ? Where a blog or micro does an especially good job on one aspect of community coverage – like Baltimore Brew and Baltimore Crime two sites cited by Potts — metros can partner with the site or just link to it with a Huffington Post-style promotion.

On Monday, June 8, the Miami Herald went public with a feature recognizing the role of community blogs. Typically for how newspapers fail to use the Web creatively, the Herald is just aggregating blogs without trying to promote the best ones — a la Huffington Post.

By shedding coverage that’s redundant in the market, the average metro should be able to re-deploy enough reporters and editors to do big, long-term projects with major local impact.

Health care, which consumes close to 20 percent of the gross domestic product, is an obvious place to begin. A refocused metro staff would starts its homework by gathering all the data pertinent to the local area (as Gawande did for McAllen), but then reporters would use their shoe leather to translate the often-eye-glazing metrics into compelling narratives populated by people impacted by the broken system – something that Gawande, with just two feet, wasn’t unable to do. The other day, I learned that a nephew of mine eloped with his girlfriend in part to become a beneficiary on her employer-provided health coverage. With the national jobless rate pushing above 10 percent and many small businesses scrapping their employee health coverage, I doubt my nephew is an anomaly. Imagine the stories that would pour in to a well-built, interactive metro website that chronicled the health care crisis so close up and personally?

Reuters reports that “medical bills are involved in more than 60 percent of U.S. personal bankruptcies, an increase of 50 percent in just six years,” and that most of those driven into bankruptcy actually had insurance – but it wasn’t enough to cover costs that exceed overall inflation. Metros can repurpose that story in thousands of people-specific ways.

Newly deployed reporters would talk to local doctors who set up the mall-like health-care centers that Gawande says are a major cause of the super-high cost of care in places like McAllen. These stories, too, would generate a lot of interactivity with the community – pro and con, to be sure.

Not all the coverage would be negative. Gawande cites communities – Rochester, MN, home of the Mayo Clinic and Boulder, CO, among others – where health care hasn’t become a profit center and doctors are trying to forge care- as opposed to cost-driven treatment. Metros would talk to the patients in care-driven treatment to find out how they benefit. Interactive discussions would draw more patient response – and maybe entrepreneur-doctors defending the system.

This smarter coverage would generate more traffic and give metros a strong shot at re-establishing themselves as a dominant news medium in their communities. More than that, it might, if enough metros got on board, help force policy makers and legislators to confront the real reasons behind the health-care crisis.

Metros could use their new playbook to cover other long-term stories with high social impact, including all those under the umbrella of an economic/financial crisis that is likely to continue for many years. Right now metros do report-and-run stories on foreclosures and business closings, but they don’t use their resources to show how these events are reshaping entire neighborhoods and maybe the American dream

How is the $800 billion from the federal stimulus legislation being spent in each metro area? Who are there winners and losers, and why? How much waste, fraud and conflict of interest are occurring? Report-and-run stories won’t answer those questions.

Metros must become like Gulliver – not the shipwrecked Gulliver who came to his senses to discover he was ensnared by the six-inch-high Lilliputians, but the Gulliver who later outwitted his captors and escaped to freedom.

Gulliver got smart. Will the metros?

About Tom Grubisich

I write about hyperlocal grassroots sites regularly for Online Journalism Review. What I've seen checking out proliferating sites has not been encouraging. The content is generally dull "happy news" or aggregated wire stories and doesn't seem to tap into what's special about the communities being covered.

I am senior web editor at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., where I help develop blogs and other content aimed at broadening the Bank's audiences around the world.

Earlier in my career, I was managing editor of news for Digital City/AOL and before that co-founder of the free-circulation weekly Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. Earlier yet, I was a reporter and editor at The Washington Post. For more information, consult, Who's Who in America (2008 edition). I'm reachable at [email protected]

Comments

  1. 198.164.42.32 says:

    The health care example is a good one.

    Americans have been very poorly served by their traditional media sources regarding the health care story. The predominate message has not been how the system is failing and needs to be i mproved, but rather the “gee whiz” sort of stories that reinforces the (mistaken) belief that American health care is the best in the world.

    Voices advocating reform along, say, the Canadian model have been drowned out by those offering misinformation about “socialized” health care in Canada and it’s “myriad dangers”. Newspapers, many of which depend on advertising from health care agencies and insurers, have been very reluctant to offer any space to the advocacy of public health care.

    The crisis in American journalism is only partially caused by the internet. It is also in a major way caused by the fact that those many tiny voices are significantly more credible than traditional media. The health care story illustrates this; it seems that only now, as people can communicate with people in other countries directly, is the misinformation about (say) Canadian health care being countered.

  2. In my little world, there’s a deep interest in thoughtfully researched and written local content. To do it well, you have to be a good, hardworking reporter familiar with the territory. For instance, I am absolutely certain that I could build a readership and a business covering public and private schools in this area. They might not love me at the school board, but I’m certain that parents would pay for the information and insight that I provided. And my conviction is that advertisers would pay for that loyal readership. That business model has worked since news was chiseled on slabs of stone and just because the words are now on screens doesn’t make it any less viable. But you have to give the customers something they value.

  3. Perry Gaskill says:

    Sorry, Tom, but I can’t help thinking that your post, although well written, begs a couple of critical questions. The first is the seeming assumption that larger economies of scale have an inherent advantage; the second is the implied idea that a metro daily’s “brand” is inevitably a positive thing.

    In a post back in April (http://www.www.ojr.org/ojr/people/robert/200904/1703/), Robert Niles pretty much put paid to the notion that bigger is always better. And though I agree that larger papers can provide more bodies to throw at the task of news gathering, the infrastructural baggage of that capability can be a serious offset because of diminishing returns. Triple the size of your newsroom staff, for example, and you’re unlikely to get three times as many stories. Adding more reporters also adds more management, clerical, etc.

    It seems to me that the obsession with growth is very much at the root of what’s wrong with the newspaper business in general, and why it hasn’t been able to make a serious jump to the Internet. No one can say for sure when it happened, but at some point in the past newspapers started caring more about Wall Street and less about the Main Street of the communities they were supposed to serve. Can anyone explain the logic, for example, of The New York Times owning The Boston Globe? Other than the fact that it can? And what all this bigger-is-better stuff has done is to alienate readers and local advertisers who, until the advent of the Internet, had few places to turn except to a predatory quasi-monopoly.

    So it seems a mistake to assume that a metro daily’s “brand” is always a positive thing. Remember the Edsel?

    It also seems fairly evident there’s a lack of understanding of this on the business side of the newspaper community. The most recent glaring example perhaps being the API white papers from the NAA confab in Chicago during which a group, a wannabe cartel who should know better, decided it would be a wonderful idea to re-erect online pay walls. If only there weren’t these pesky things like anti-trust and price-fixing laws around…

    Just in case this is starting to sound like a defense of all-things-wonderful about the blogosphere, it’s not. The vast majority of bloggers have little, if any, concept of what street-level reporters actually do. The biggest problem with a typical metro daily isn’t in the newsroom; it’s in the fact that the newsroom, while imperfect, is controlled by a bunch of blunderers and buffoons whose only goal is to “provide maximum shareholder value” for the next 90 days.

  4. 120.141.12.229 says:

    A very thoughtful article. The idea of going back to the roots of journalism (investigative reporting) is very apppealing and may actually improve the writing standards in the long run. However, prints are businesses too, and thus we will have to wait for a magnate to take that first step. Rupert Murdoch again???