The Media

What Should A Local Newspaper Cover?

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I stumbled across an interesting discussion about the role of newspapers over at Ed Kemmick’s blog today, and it’s a fascinating give and take between Ed and a critic of the current Billings Gazette, who argues that hard news has been supplanted with public relations and features coverage at the paper.

It’s an interesting discussion, and one that probably plays out in newsrooms across the country. I’m increasingly seeing myself as one of the curmudgeons who want more hard news and often find myself incredibly frustrated about the lack of “hard news” coverage in my daily local, the Independent Record.

The subject I am most familiar with is, of course, education, and in my mind, it’s a perfect lens with which to view the lack of substantive news coverage in my local. This week provides an instructive example. On Tuesday, the Helena School Board met to discuss anticipated budget shortfalls for the 2008-09 school year. It was a tough meeting, lasting hours, with a lot of information presented, including the idea that the district will either have to dip heavily into one time money or cut programs and staffing next year.

That’s important news, right? From Tuesday, and still uncovered. Not a word.

This isn’t an aberration. In my time in Helena as a teacher, there has been little attention paid to hard news about the schools. Instead, education coverage in Helena is almost always feature stories, about a particular program or class. It’s not that those don’t have value or a place in the news; it’s that they don’t mean much without the context that hard news would provide. I enjoyed editor John Doran’s story about visiting Smith School today. I just would have enjoyed it more if his paper covered the news, too.

It’s not that hard news isn’t easy to find. In fact, I and others have sent story suggestions to the IR, only to be met with deafening silence. Maybe Ed is right, and the Gazette is better than it was 20 years ago; I’m just not seeing the same thing in Helena.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a seventeen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

9 Comments

  • Shane is a little harsh, I think. True, the big dailies are all owned by chains, but welcome to the world of modern journalism. The 300 or 400 people who work at these papers are all local. We live and work in these towns and we care about them as much as anybody. To suggest that Lee just has a few “offices” in Montana is wrong factually and it sounds spiteful, for whatever reason.

    Lee headquarters wants a return on investments, true enough, but decisions on local coverage are all made locally, and we have no one to blame if that coverage is lacking. If you don’t like the IR’s coverage of a particular issue, let the editor know. I think you’d be surprised at how quickly he responds. Or at least I hope so.

  • Correct me if I’m wrong, but I understand that the only major daily newspaper in Montana not owned by Lee Enterprises is the Great Falls Tribune. IF so, I guess the record speaks for itself. I like the trib, I think its the best consistent daily print news source in the state.

  • That’s what frustrates me, Ed. I’ve tried–and nothing has really changed. I’ve even had colleagues who aren’t snarky, critical bloggers tell me that they have tried to suggest approaches to education coverage and even potential stories, only to be shot down. I don’t expect every story I think is important to be covered, but on the other hand, some good ideas have been suggested and ignored.

    Sean, I think there are a few more independents out there–the Bozeman and Kalispell papers aren’t Lee, if I’m not mistaken.

  • Pardon my belated return to the thread. Yes, the Trib is not owned by Lee. It’s owned by Gannett, the biggest newspaper chain in the world. With all due respect, I think the old Trib, when it was owned by Cowles, was a damned good paper. Under Gannett, it has fallen and I don’t think it is nearly as good as it used to be.

    I always forget the name of the chain that owns the Chronicle, but it certainly isn’t “independent.” Ditto with Kalispell, I believe.
    Pogie, I can’t argue with your experiences. I can only say they surprise me. I think we have to listen to readers, especially readers who are well-informed and who still really care about the news. Who else are we hoping to appeal to?

  • Yeah, suggesting the Tribune is an independent was pretty funny. I didn’t mean to, but it did sound like that. 🙂

    In moments when I am feeling more fair, I wonder about staffing at places like the IR. Without naming any names, I’ve seen a huge improvement in the quality of work from at least one reporter who went from the IR to the Gazette. Is it staffing? Editorial direction?

    It’s hard to say, but I sure I wish I saw more coverage of news than features in my hometown paper.

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