Monday, March 24, 2008

Small Is Beautiful

Editor & Publisher recently noted that in small-town America, the newspaper business is not nearly so dire. It offered seven ideas for how to connect with readers. Among the questions it got into: What is local news?

Metro newspapers have been trying to deal with this issue -- or avoid dealing with this issue -- for years. Most of us have some experience with the conundrum that local news is not what metro newspapers really want to do.

There's also the question of how local you can be. Metro papers' local zones have often covered entire counties -- partly so they could sell a product on a county-penetration business lining up against the local daily, but also because it reflected a standard newsroom way of thinking -- you start with the courthouse, then the major cities and towns -- based on covering the largest units of government, since they must be the ones that affect the most people.

I live in a town of 20,000 people, and I don't really care about the next town over, even though it's bigger; and I give almost no thought to what the county freeholders do. As John Tompkins of News Media Corp. put it: "Big story counts of hard news -- traffic accidents, fires, crimes, village council news, small-town politicking. 'This is news our readers have to read,' Tompkins says." Why? As Gerri's response to an earlier post said: This is their lives. Because it affects their tax rates and people they know and so they can gossip about it while watching their kids play soccer. So they can make connections with the other people who live where they live. Focus group after focus group told my paper and others this during the heyday of the Neighbors era of metropolitan journalism. But we didn't really want to report it. We didn't live there.

I remember a years-long argument over building a subdivision in a rural and veddy-upscale part of a horsey area. We would run story after story about how the township board was finally prepared to act on the proposal and was expected to vote at its meeting this week. Whereupon 600 foes of the proposal would turn up, and the board would table it yet again, hoping to somehow find a meeting at which only 50 people attended.

It was well-off people who didn't want more cars on their roads and more kids in their schools, fighting a well-off developer who knew the township's reputation would add profit to the house. Some people editing the stories couldn't see the point of the coverage. It didn't address societal inequities or the plight of the underprivileged. It didn't expose corruption or bring about progress. It didn't reveal the hidden miasma at the heart of the suburban dream; it didn't show that the children of the people who lived there used drugs and had sex despite their parents' efforts to inoculate them by moving to the safe suburbs. It was just a stalemate between people with lawyers. Why were we covering it?

Well, because it was the major "issue" in the township and it affected people's sense of control and identity. That's what most local news is. That's why I may want to read about a traffic accident in my township and not care about one a mile farther down in another -- the chance is higher that the one in my township involved someone I know. And then I can say to someone, "Hey, did you see where..."

Back in the 1970s the Hartford Courant was famed for its B-section coverage that consisted of reports from towns all over central Connecticut. As the New York Times reported in 1989, "the new management (Times Mirror) considered such down-home coverage parochial and dropped most of it in favor of a broadly regional approach with features and news that would have universal appeal. There was talk that The Courant wanted to challenge The Boston Globe as the dominant paper of New England." In the late 1980s the Courant was busily engaged in trying to put it all back, but in a more costly manner involving massive replates. The Courant lost touch with what its readers wanted, because it wanted them to want what it wanted to do in order to be seen as a hot-shot newspaper.

Newspapers failed to succeed in the newer suburbs -- the exurbs, if you will -- because they put themselves at odds with their readers, who wanted down-home parochial coverage. It wasn't all they wanted; they wanted major sports coverage and political analysis and all the rest. But journalists didn't want to deliver the down-home. Yes, it also cost a ton of money. But the internal reward system was, do this junk well and then you will never have to do it again. A sure recipe for success.

1 comment:

Watchdog said...

A friend of mine sent me a link to your blog a few weeks ago, and I've really enjoyed it. I love today's take on "local news." I left a capital city daily four years ago and my wife and I bought a 4,000-circulation weekly. It's been the most eye-opening experience of my life.
A good chunk of our inside pages every week includes the kind of "chicken dinner" stuff we used to pawn off on our advertorial neighbors-type department. That's a big part of what people want to see in the newspaper.
On the flip side, they also enjoy well-written news stories about their cities, schools and people, and that's what fills page one. It's the newsroom types who believe it's got to be one or the other who create the problem. We can be (almost) all things to (almost) all people. But we have to choose good local and occasionally state stories to lead with, and cede lots of that inside space now going to "important" international news to the chicken dinners and Girls Scouts gathering that are important to local readers.
Just my 2 cents. Keep up the great work.