Even though I no longer subscribe to a newspaper, I hope that fact won’t lead you to infer that I don’t support local newsrooms. I just believe that newspapers must reinvent themselves to survive in the Internet era. Online news start-ups must structure themselves not along traditional newsroom beat line-ups, but choose instead a new design that better connects their reporters with the community they work to serve.
With that in mind, here are the five beats that I believe should form the core of any local news publication, in print or online. These are the beats which best reflect the activities of readers’ daily lives – the ones most likely to elicit a connection between reader and publisher, which I believe is the primary requirement for success in news publishing. A publisher might choose to expand beyond these five beats, but these five remain a must for any publisher who wants the best chance at forging a strong connection with local readers.
If you’re starting on your own, focus on these subject areas. If you’re staffing a larger news organization, you might be able to assign multiple reporters to each beat. But make certain that all five are covered. Unfortunately, even some of the nation’s largest newsrooms give the majority of these beats little, or even no, regular attention. And that, even more than competition from the Internet, provides the reason why so many readers have disconnected from their daily paper.
The “dream” publication I’m outlining here carries no wire services reports and no syndicated features, either. It’s 100% locally produced and 100% directed at the local community. So don’t think I’m writing about marginal change here. The structure I’m proposing would create a news publication that looks radically different than today’s typical newspaper.
I know that many publishers over the years have found it far more cost-effective to load up their papers and websites with wire copy and syndicated features than to hire local reporters. But with that content available at thousands of other URLs online, every dollar spent on wire or syndicated services is a dollar wasted. If you feel that you need to reference those reports for your readers, link them online or publish the URL in print. As so many others have said before, do what you do best and link to the rest. If you want better performance, you’re not going to get it by doing the same old thing, are you?
Here are my five essential beats for local news publications, in their order of importance:
People eat every day. In every community across the country, food is an industry that never can be outsourced. Even if a community’s food is grown elsewhere, people will be buying and eating it close to home.
People crave information about food. They’re as insatiable for it as they are for, well, food itself. A strong local news publication should remind people when it is time to plant what, what’s in season in their local markets, and who’s doing something creative with food in local restaurants.
One great food blogger could cover this beat, but in a larger newsroom, this beat could be divided among a gardening columnist, a restaurant critic, a recipe writer and a reporter covering nutrition and agriculture.
Properly executed, the food beat – and the audience it connects with – can entice significant advertising support from local food producers, markets and restauranteurs. If I were starting a local blog today, and could cover only one topic to start, it’d be the local food scene.
Your average reader will spend more time during his or her life in contact with the public education system than any other civic institution.
Education defines lives of young people and parents within your community, and news about education is their primary information need.
And yet, most news organizations give little coverage to education, beyond easy-to-cover issues such as prep sports, police calls to a campus and state-released test scores. That’s because most school systems are skeptical, even fearful, of outsiders. Student safety regulations limit access to students. Overworked and underpaid teachers have little time for outsiders. (And, yes, the average school teacher is overworked and underpaid. You try doing their job for a while.) District personnel have grown used to the media portraying academics negatively, if they cover it all.
But the reward for a news organization that can fully cover a school district is huge. Parents want a fuller look at what’s happening in their schools, including everything from the in-class experience to the performance of speech teams and show choirs. Heck, maybe more comprehensive coverage of their schools might entice more than a few students into a habit of reading the local news.
Your best bet here? Demand that the person covering the district be a parent with a child in the district. And never assign a reporter to cover more than one district. (Add an additional reporter for each community college or university you wish to cover, as well.) For effective local coverage of education, district-by-district circulation zoning is a must for larger print publications.
We eat. We learn. We work. But how many publications cover work, from the worker’s perspective? Business stories typically focus on the management side. But what about the pocketbook and workplace politics issues that employees face? Where’s the coverage of that? This is the home for your consumer reporting, including household finance and budgeting, but also for local development issues covered from an employee’s point of view. Are development incentives helping create jobs and pay for workers, or just fatting management’s pockets for projects that would have happened anyway?
Covering unions and labor negotiations will be part of this beat, but don’t limit yourself to that. What are people doing in your community to get hired, to get promoted or even just to keep their jobs? (Update: Let me add one more, based on a reader’s tweet: How will people in your community get to their jobs, and how does that affect their lives?) Those are all core questions for this beat.
First thing when covering business: lose the obsession with daily stock and commodities market reports. Forget all that stuff that comes across the business wire. Focus exclusively on what’s happening in your community instead. Who’s filed for a zoning change or variance? Who’s pulled building permits? Who’s hiring, or laying off, employees? Make it a daily habit to check that information at city hall, or wherever such notices are filed in your community.
A weekly round-up of new hires and promotions at local businesses also ought to be a must for any local business writer. It shows that you’re paying attention to the local business community and helps you forge connections with the people within it.
You’re running a business now – a news publication business. What are the issues you’ve had to deal with in starting and maintaining that business? Every other business person in your community is facing those same issues. Cover them in your publication and you’ll find many other local voices eager to join you in a conversation.
I guarantee you, no matter where you live, that more people attend religious services on a random weekend than subscribe to the local paper. Why ignore something that engages so many people in your community?
Faith unites and divides people within your community. It inspires some, and disturbs others. Political and social movements are born within places of worship. The relationships formed and strengthened within churches and other places of worship affect how business and political deals will be made in your community.
You definitely need to be covering this.
And yet, the difficulty of addressing this beat discourages too many newsrooms from trying. Failures on this beat can be spectacularly insensitive. I joke that universal adoption of a faith beat would be a full-employment act for Unitarian Universalist journalists. (Full disclosure: Like me!) You need a reporter who accepts people of all faiths, without prejudice, so that they will be accepted by sources in all faith communities. Like education, this is a tough beat to gain trust from sources, but if you do, you’ll be rewarded with an engaged readership.
And now, let’s talk about some of the beats I didn’t include.
But what about… sports?
Pro and major college sports coverage is the crack of local journalism. Publications get addicted to the fat pageview traffic that sports delivers online, but publishers suffer the lowest eCPM on their sites within their sports section. Much of the traffic sports delivers online comes from out-of-market fans, who are of no value to your local advertisers. And news coverage can’t provide the close association with a beloved local team that an advertiser can better get by sponsoring the team directly. So leave the pro and major college teams to ESPN.com and the many team bloggers now covering them.
If your community is closely associated with an individual professional sport then you might consider launching an additional, niche publication covering that sport. (I’d like to see the Indianapolis Star build a true destination website covering IndyCar racing, for example.) But that’s a national/international play for a news organization, and not part of your local business plan.
The exception? Truly local sports, such as school and community sports, as well as local recreation opportunities. If after staffing the top five beats, you’ve still got the budget to keep a sports staff, kick them off the pro and major college beats and make them cover local participatory sports instead.
But what about… entertainment?
Why should a local publication devote resources to covering movies, TV, books and recorded music, which are produced elsewhere and well covered by a throng of niche publications?
Local theater advertising typically drives this coverage in print, but with movie theaters consolidating into a fewer national chains and cutting back their spending on local media, devote your sales resources elsewhere for greater return.
The local press should cover live local artists, including galleries, theaters, orchestras and bands, however. While this beat is not as crucial as the core five I listed above, I’d add it before local rec sports as the sixth beat for a strong local publication.
And again, you might have a national niche play opportunity in this space, too. The Los Angeles and New York papers need to be covering motion picture, television, book, music and theater production, for example. But, again, they should be positioning their coverage on these beats as national niche plays to supplement their advertising and/or subscription income, rather than sections in a locally-focused publication.
But what about… weather?
Crowdsource it. Big local weather events attract attention, but instead of devoting a staff reporter to cover weather as a beat, open up an interactive section on the website whenever a major weather event occurs, and let readers share their stories, photos and videos there, which you then can pull to create front-page print and online reports.
People can get today’s forecast from their phone or dozens of other websites. I’d still print today’s and tomorrow’s forecasts – pulled from the National Weather Service – on the front page of the paper (as well as the sunrise and sunset times, and maybe the tides if you’re in a beach community). But that’s it.
But what about… crime and courts?
Automate it. Pull a crime blotter feed from your local police so readers who care can find crime reports in their neighborhood. But I see no need to continue the “if it bleeds, it leads” terrorism that journalists have been inflicting upon society for a generation.
Beat writers can cover court cases relevant to their beats, though I can see publications covering mid-sized and larger communities needing to add a dedicated courts reporter to help assist those beat writers by specializing in trial coverage (which is a huge time-suck). That’d be my next hire from this list.
But what about… comics?
Comics can provide a great introduction to the newspaper for children. And smart cartooning can reward and inspire older readers as well. But most newspaper comics pages succumbed to the zombie apocalypse years ago. They’re the undead. Beetle Bailey? Blondie? Peanuts?
Slay the zombie. Kill the comics section. Then, if you’ve got the budget to return comics to the paper, convene some focus groups of local students to help you select a new strip line-up, with at least one strip commissioned from a local artist. And pay a few other sharp local cartoonists to create one-panel ‘toons for use elsewhere in the paper. (Think, a local version of The New Yorker cartoons.) These would be my final expenses in expanding the publication’s coverage.
But what about… government?
I’ve saved the most controversial for last.
Yes, we need journalists to cover government, but assigning government (or politics) as a distinct beat segregates government from the communities it serves. A local news publication needs to cover government by having each of its reporters cover government within the context of his or her beat, and not by leaving that task to an individual reporter or team.
Your education reporter should not only cover the school board, but also local and state legislation and regulation affecting education. Your business reporter should be covering the zoning board, as well as local council decisions and state legislation that affects the business community. Your food reporter should be covering the ag board and extension office, as well as the annual farm bill. And whoever’s got the labor beat should be a frequent visitor to your local Social Security, job training and unemployment services offices.
I believe that one of the reasons why so much government coverage these days reduces to “horse race” stories about the political impact of government decisions is that the reporters covering Congress, state legislatures and local councils rarely talk to the people outside government who will be affected by these decisions. Instead, they speak mostly with staffers, lobbyists and elected officials. From within that context, of course everything’s about the political horse race.
Reassign these stories by subject beat, and those reporters will come to government from a different perspective – that of their other sources, those outside government. Stories will be about how a government decision affects the people in the community, rather than how they affect pols and players.
Current journalism practice reinforces a political ideology that claims government is ineffective and only a hindrance in people’s lives – a political game that doesn’t matter to people. Asking beat reporters to take on government stories within their beats would be the best thing news publishers could do to move from the “view from nowhere” stories that media critic Jay Rosen justly decries and instead imbue government coverage with the proper context that these important decisions deserve.
Any local news publication that follows this plan would look substantially different than any newspaper or local news website I’ve ever read. You’d likely face some initial resistance from the audience, as well, as what you’d be offering would look somewhat different than what readers have come to consider “news.”
But what you would be offering is information more relevant to your readers’ daily lives. And, as they come to see that, you’ll be in position to forge more substantive connections with that audience. You’d be redefining what is “news” for them, and for the industry. In doing so, I believe, you’d be helping draw a roadmap to a future where local newsrooms re-establish their profitability, and their voice, with their communities.
Update: Several tweeters have mentioned health, which I should have included in the second list, along with sports and entertainment.
I see health as a strong niche play, as demonstrated by the proliferation of so many health-oriented websites. But, like entertainment, it’s a different play when covered exclusively from the local perspective, as I’d like to see.
So if you have the readership to expand your staff beyond the initial five beats (and six, if you add local entertainment), adding a local health reporter would be a good call. (Remember that nutrition would be covered under food.) But keep in mind that the reporter’s focus must be on what’s happening with health in the local community, and not duplicating national and international health reporting. Link to that, instead.