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.