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.

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.