The news is bad for newspapers: ad revenues and readership are falling to dangerous levels, with major companies and newspapers facing significant financial difficulties. Gannett is laying off workers, the Tribune Company is seeking bankruptcy protection, and even our own Lee Enterprises (the 7th largest chain in the country) is seeing its stock plummet, from nearly $16/share to 3 shares/$1, and facing a cascade of debt that calls into question the company’s viability.
Some of these difficulties make sense: print newspapers are dealing with a cultural change in the way that we read and gather news. We’re just surrounded by access to information. When I was young, I remember waking up as early as I could to read the Great Falls Tribune to get the box score of the Padres game the night before, because it was the only place I could get the news in my cable-free house. If the game was on the West Coast, I usually had to wait until the following day. Today, I can’t avoid hearing the score of the game, much as I would like to, given the poor play of the Padres. I can get an update on my cell phone, catch the score on half a dozen cable channels, watch the game on my computer, or TIVO it for later viewing. I control where I get the information, and from whom, just like my news.
To some extent, it appears that small local papers have not adjusted to this sea change. I regularly read 24 hour old AP wire stories about international and national affairs in the Independent Record. These stories don’t offer anything new, and unlike 10 years ago, don’t even inform the average reader, who has already heard the story. By the time the piece reaches a reader in the morning, the story has broken, had 13 new blogs created to discuss it, and been featured in at least a half-dozen YouTube parodies: it’s old news.
The IR seems to have chosen an interesting response to this issue: they’ve essentially given up hard news reporting of local issues. In its place, the paper is filled with human interest stories, press releases, and columnists ruminating on weighty issues like the new Organic Coffee bar in town. I suspect these measures are designed to make producing the newspaper less expensive, but from my point of view, they’ve just made the product cheaper.
Human Interest News
Human interest stories absolutely dominate the Independent Record. The past week has featured front page coverage of Game Day at the Library, Hanukkah, the Carroll Football team, the cold weather and its impact on one ranch, 8th grade honors students making videos, and the pressing national concern about delayed luggage from the Carroll football team’s trip to Georgia.
These are front page stories. In part, they explain what newspapers are doing to themselves. Has anyone ever told a neighbor or co-worker that they must read the paper to read a story like this? Has one ever generated any meaningful word of mouth about the paper? Of course not. What’s the appeal, then? Well, they’re easy to write, don’t require much research, and usually have some appealing art for the front page: short term gains that make the paper less relevant every day.
Press Release Journalism
These narratives only hurt the relevance of the newspaper; the real damage comes from the stories that hurt its credibility: “news” that might as well have been written by the organization(s) or person(s) being covered.
Wonder what I mean? Take a look at today’s lead story about St. Peter’s Hospital. It’s just an unbelievable piece of boosterism for one of Helena’s largest employers (and not incidentally, largest advertisers). In painting the expansion of the hospital as an unqualified success, as judged solely by its CEO (the only person interviewed in the entire story!), the piece manages to brush away all of the news that would have been worth reporting: that St. Peter’s would rather ensure “reimbursement rates” than provide hospice care, that there are significant doctor shortages, and that mental health remains a largely unresolved issue in our community.
Whether it’s St. Peter’s, Carroll College (which has been experiencing a bitter, protracted fight about compensation for faculty for years), the Montana Meth Project, the local schools, or political figures, the Independent Record has been far too willing print stories that don’t seem to be based on asking the hard questions or investigating beyond asking the PR director of the agency involved. These stories don’t demand anything of anyone: not the reporter writing them, not the agencies being written about, and not the audience reading them.
A reporter doesn’t always need to be negative, but he/she certainly needs to be critical. A newspaper that lacks that mindset won’t have any credibility with its readers.
Getting the Readers Back
So, how can the Independent Record stay competitive in this challenging environment, draw in readers, and become a vital part of our community’s conversation once more?
- Stop with the absurd efforts to appeal to new readers. They’re not going to be drawn to the paper by an expanded arts section or to your web site by incredibly annoying videos. Appeal to new readers just as you should with older readers—with better coverage.
- Take on some of the sacred cows in our community. When a controversy breaks, don’t send your reporters to get a quote from the “communications director” or “press liaison” of the agency involved. Does anyone believe that this people will ever have anything of value to say? Isn’t their job to minimized critical news and trumpet every imagined success? Dig. Investigate. Confront.
- Remember the role of the media. Your job isn’t to promote institutions, but to make them better by keeping the public informed. Those editorials about the crucial importance of the media in a free society might ring a little true if there was a bit more critical coverage going on.
- Offer thoughtful analysis of the issues that impact the community. In the days after Mike Dennison’s recent coverage of health care options following the election of Barack Obama, I can’t tell you how many people brought up the articles in discussion. I think that readers are hungry for news coverage like this. Surely, the Independent Record can cover the deer culling controversy, the failure to meet Annual Yearly Progress by our secondary schools, and dozens of other important local issues with real scrutiny and insight. The stories might be harder to write and research, and require devoting adequate resources to do the job, but to borrow the words of W.P. Kinsella, if you write it, readers will come.
I want newspapers to survive, and even thrive. I can’t imagine a world in which most of our news comes from television or, God forbid, blogs, but newspapers are only going to survive if they make themselves indispensible to their communities once again. That’s only going to happen with better coverage, more thoughtful reporting, and a focus on news that matters.