Engagement is the key to winning back readers and advertisers

So how does a newspaper publisher reverse the industry-wide decline in circulation? How can newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times win back people like me as subscribers?

Last week I posted the reasons why I dropped my LA Times subscription, leaving me without a newspaper subscription for the first time in my life. But as much as I’d like to see the Times’ and Tribune’s current management fail, that desire is rooted in my hope that their failure will clear the way for a better management team, not because I want to see professional newsrooms disband.

News publishers must understand that their duty is to the communities that they cover, and not to the industry of journalism and its conventions. Take a look at the comments on a typical newspaper’s website to get a quick indication of following that newspapers have attracted. That is the community newspapers are now attracting. Remember, these are the folks who care enough to take the time to make a comment on a news story or blog post. Do they represent a healthy community that’s engaged in productive discussion, or one that’s angry? (For a more accurate picture, you’d need to consider the comments submitted, not just those published. Which in most cases, would compose an even scarier picture.)

Not every website elicits the crude, bitter and hostile commentary that pollutes too many newspaper websites. This isn’t an Internet thing – other websites elicit far different reaction from their readers. What you often see on newspaper websites provides another sign of a troubled community, one where thoughtful people too rarely take the time to engage, fewer customers pay for subscriptions and more advertisers cut back or cancel than sign up for new ads.

Publishers need to change that. They need to find ways to reconnect with their communities, and to forge stronger relationships than the community of convenience they had with their readers and advertisers before. Readers and advertisers have more choices online now. They’re looking for conviction, not convenience. News publishers need to offer their communities more to entice them to engage, to subscribe and to advertise.

Unfortunately, the conventions of journalism too often steer publishers away from the engagement that they need with their communities.

Journalism ethics dictate that reporters:

– Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
– Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
– Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.

I agree that reporters shouldn’t get elite treatment within a community. But in practice, these rules have done much more. They’ve given us an industry of reporters who have few professional affiliations in the beats that they cover. Often, that means reporters have no professional experience, or even training, on those beats. (Television sports, of all beats, remains one of the exceptions.)

We’ve also got an industry of reporters who too often don’t belong to any organizations in their community. They don’t belong to service clubs, churches or send kids to the public schools. It’s gotten to the point where some reporters now brag that they don’t even vote.

Sorry, but hearing that you don’t vote doesn’t make me think that you are a credible journalist. It makes me think that you don’t give a damn about the community in which you live. And if you don’t given a damn about our community, why should I care what you have to say and report about it?

Internet reporting will belong to the experts – people with experience in the fields that the cover and the resulting insider’s perspective that can help them separate truth from fiction and honesty from lies. I used to work at Scripps, which emblazoned its newspapers with the motto “Give light and the people will find their own way.”

How 20th Century.

The Internet’s not only created competition for news publishers, it has created an information overload for news consumers. We’ve got so many lights shining around us now, we need someone who can help us tell the difference between the end of the tunnel and the oncoming train. We go online for help in finding our way, not a passive reporter dumping even more unfiltered information onto our screens. The Internet hasn’t eliminated gatekeepers – it’s created unprecedented demand for them.

Communities not only demand informed reporting, they want it from someone who has the passion and commitment to advocate for the community’s best interests in that reporting. Communities are a collection of individual relationships. Are you going to enter into a relationship with someone who doesn’t care about you? Think of all those TV news promotional spots hyping that Channel So-and-Such “cares.” In this competitive publishing market, caring needs to be more than a slogan. You’ve got to stand for something.

Don’t fall into the trap that good reporters don’t make judgments. Reporters and editors make judgments when they choose what to cover, whom to interview, which sources to cite and how to play a story. Own your judgments, instead of pretending they don’t exist.

Afraid that you’ll lose readers by advocating for the wrong point of view? Good. You should be. So you, as a publisher, had better make darn sure that you’re hiring reporters who can do the research and have the experience to make conclusions that will stand up to additional time and reporting.

To better connect with their communities, publishers need to hire reporters who are part of those communities – people who are citizens first, reporters second. (That’s another reason why I hate using the term “citizen journalist” for non-newsroom reporters – it implies that professional reporters are not citizens.) And publishers need to hire reporters who have the training, experience and expertise within their communities to offer the most enlightened and useful coverage.

I don’t believe that people won’t think for themselves. I respect the communities I participate in enough to know that my neighbors and colleagues want to participate in the tough decisions facing our communities. But I also know that we are all busy, and want the best information to help us the decisions we need to make. We want someone to clearly warn us about misinformation, steer us from distractions and highlight the crucial details we need to know.

And we want smart, experienced, engaged, caring people to help us do that. If news publications provide those types of reporters, the public will embrace them again. If news publishers choose instead to provide the cheapest recent j-school graduates they could hire – glorified stenographers who think reporting means collecting quotes – the public won’t. Angry readers will continue to pollute their paper’s website comments, and people like me will continue to let our subscriptions lapse.

For more on community engagement, check out KDMC’s series on How journos, news orgs can support civic engagement.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. Many newspapers would be well served to simply adopt good customer service practices. Have you ever tried to call a newsroom?

    Every year, I have a project that causes me to call the city desk of the 60 largest newspapers in the country. It’s an enormous exercise in frustration. Nobody answers or if someone does answer, the odds that they’ll know something or be at all helpful is one in 10. And once I do get somebody on the phone, there is a 90 percent chance that they’ll be hurried, arrogant and dismissive.

    In an unrelated incident that is nonetheless reflective of my complaint, my 85-year-old mother-in-law was photographed playing bridge. Her picture ran in the Atlantic City Press, a newspaper to which she has subscribed for 40 years — at least.

    I wanted to buy a copy of the picture. Instructions on the paper’s website for purchasing photos told me to call the editor’s secretary. I did three or four times, but I never got an answer. Maybe she doesn’t work there any more. I called asking for the editor. No luck. Then I tried to call the photo department. Nobody answered. Then I tried the city desk and got no help there either.

    I don’t mean to pick on the Atlantic City Press because don’t think that kind of customer service, or lack of it, is unusual in the newspaper business. I think it reflects the overweening attitude starting at the top in the industry that being responsive to readers is inconvenient, expensive and ultimately not very productive.

  2. Most people just aren’t able to deal with radical changes when they impact vital aspects of their lives and they react poorly.

    I feel for these people. There are such amazing opportunities opening up, and in so many ways they are the best people to take advantage of them. But, being so entrenched in their old way of doing things; instead they lash out at those closest to them and least deserving. In doing so they seal their fate.

    Some will adapt though. They will capitalize on the changes and flourish.

  3. This is thought provoking, and I agree that there has been a significant shift in how people absorb information these days. We just don’t have the patience like we used to before the Internet age to go through news and articles in details, partly due to information overload as you said. And because of that, it’s even more important now for online journalists to be better at what they do in order to immediately engage and entice readers.

  4. Great post! I worry about how much time journalists have spent fostering an “otherness” in the name of objectivity. We’re now scrambling to make connections. (I wrote a little about that here: http://rjiblog.org/2010/09/15/so-long-wizard-of-oz-journalism-lets-make-margaritas/)

    I spent time a couple of weeks ago with the editor of a community weekly here in Missouri. We weren’t in the newsroom much