THBT: Local Media, Built From Scratch

One of the things I enjoy the most when traveling is reading and watching the local news. On last week’s Tar Heel Bus Tour, I had a chance to pick up a couple of papers and wonder to myself what local media in the state would look like if it were starting from scratch today.

What if the question at newspapers with (literally) dying readerships were not “How do save the newspaper?” but instead “How do we start today serving our communities with the most accurate, relevant and efficient package of news and information?”

One of the big questions that most newspapers don’t address head-on is about what business they are in. It seems to me that people derive value from newspapers primarily through three goods and services they provide — the delivery of the information (the actual transportation of the newspaper from the press to your driveway), the packaging of information (the process of creating “news” out of “information” that typically happens inside the newsroom) and the acquisition of information (the reporting, which typically happens outside the newsroom).

My (now retired) colleague Phil Meyer argues that newspaper are in the “influence” business, a definition that encompasses both the news content and the advertising content and that describes how news influence is used to built advertising influence. I recommend his book, The Vanishing Newspaper, if you’d like to read more.

It’s important for newspapers to tackle this question directly, because in the online world they have lost all value that may have once been associated with the delivery of the news. That value is now realized by your home Internet service provider. And, while many people value the newsPAPER packaging, the value is also lost once information is put online. It’s lost primarily to social media like blogs and Facebook and to search engines like Google. Packaging of news has become much more democratic.

But in my small sample of N.C. newspapers on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of last week, it appears as if newspaper are putting far too much emphasis on the packaging service and not enough on the actual value of reporting — the one last value proposition on which news companies still hold an advantage.

I looked at the Sun-Journal of New Bern, the Independent Tribune of Concord/Kannapolis and the Asheville Citizen-Times. And what I found were three newspapers chock full of commodity content. It struck me that news consumption for American travelers is becoming much like food consumption — I stayed in homogeneous hotels that delivered to my door a homogeneous newspaper (USA Today), and in the one hotel I did get the local paper I found little in it other than homogeneous news.

Here are my very rough estimates of the different amounts of each type of content in these three papers on the one day I picked up each.

Commodity News (wire stories and syndicated features)

Sun-Times: 46%

Independent Tribune: 69%

Citizen-Times: 41%

User-Generated Content (obits, letters, guest columnists, pet photos, etc.)

Sun-Times: 16%

Independent Tribune: 6%

Citizen-Times: 18%

Local Professional Reporting or Commentary

Sun-Times: 35%

Independent Tribune: 25%

Citizen-Times: 41%

Why do these local papers with local missions — papers that presumably know their communities better than any other news organization in the world — rely so heavily on commodity content? After all, as my colleague Jock Lauterer can tell you better than I, community newspapers (most of which shy away from commodity content) are the one sector of the news business that is actually thriving right now.

The answer at most newspapers is that commodity content is cheaper than hiring reporters to fill the same amount of space in the newspaper. I’d argue it’s cheaper for a good reason — that it has little to no value for the reader who can get the same thing on Yahoo News (and thousands of other Web sites) hours before it appears in the paper.

But, apparently, the advertising revenue that these papers get around commodity content is still more than the cost of the content and the newsprint on which it’s printed.

Online media, of course, has its own cheap content. It flies under the buzzword banner of “user-generated content” or “citizen journalism.” To us do-gooders this type of content sounds appealing because it aims to get a more diverse set of voices in to the conversation. And, if done well, it can. But let’s not forget that the real reason this content has value to publishers is because it is free. And when you sell advertising around free content, you’ve got a pretty nice profit margin. One model of a citizen journalism site had a business model that called for 90 percent to 95 percent of its content to come from its readers. (Although even that model didn’t work out too well.)

But Ryan, you say, that’s all well and good. However, you’ve yet to answer your original questions. What do you think local media in North Carolina should look like if you were building it from the ground up today?

My long preamble builds up to the first point of my answer:

1. Ban all commodity content. A site built from the ground up shouldn’t get hooked on that easy fix. If you want to keep people abreast of commodity news then…

2. Be a part of the conversation. A good local Web site would have one staff member dedicated to pointing Web site readers to good content on other sites. A quick link to the offsite information embedded in a brief analysis of how that offsite story affects local readers is a wonderful service. And that state has one good example of it in the “From Fay to Z” blog that Gregory Phillips writes for the Fayetteville Observer. But being part of the conversation also means …

3. Give your audience a place of their own. Virginia Wolf was right. A good local media company would become the go-to place for anyone in the community that wanted to connect with other members of the community. Bluffton Today in Bluffton, S.C., is a national model for this kind of openness. Unfortunately, as I noted above, user-generate content has generally been a bust online. I think that’s mostly because newsrooms aren’t very good at cultivating it. There are two ways to cultivate it. The first being…

4. Help readers be their own reporters by surfacing as much data about your community as possible. The model here is the Lawrence Journal-World. The model on crack is, built by Adrian Holovaty, who also helped build the Journal-World site. Why do this? Because smartly organized raw data helps people navigate their own community in ways that are uniquely relevant to each reader. The second way newsrooms need to cultivate community is to …

5. Integrate professional and amateur content. Good reporters will need to learn how to cultivate online communities of loyal readers. They will have to learn how to ask their readers for help. Grassroots organizing will be a skill on par with interviewing. Because, in the end, tapping in to a network helps improve …

6. Good, ol’ fashioned professional reporting. Look here — people don’t want to milk their own cows or home school their kids. In the same vein, they don’t want to spend their whole day doing the dirty work that journalists should do. Aside from the skills and professional ethics (which are all too often in contrast to the community’s ethics, but that’s a different story…) that are learned through consistent reporting experience, it’s simply a poor use of resources to have everyone at the sewer board meeting. I mean, ONE of us should go. But not all of us. Let’s send a reporter. And it’s an efficient use of community resources for an untrained reporter to investigate a potentially corrupt public official. So let’s pool our resources and have one well-trained specialist be our watchdog.

And when it comes right down to it, that’s the service that a good newsroom should provide to its community — it should help us make faster and more satisfying decisions about how we all live together in an increasingly complex and connected world.

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One thought on “THBT: Local Media, Built From Scratch”

  1. I like were you going with this. In newspapers would step up to the plate on this they would be in my hands more often. I have lost more trust with media types, and gained more trust with everyday people blogging.

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