Thursday, January 04, 2007


The big issue in newspapering these days isn't quality or ethics but preservation: preservation of jobs, status, and the printed product, but also to some extent the preservation of our own cultural myths. The aloof-but-wise senior editor. The tough-but-fair city editor. All manner of reporter stereotypes. We desire not only to preserve newspaper journalism in the digital age, but to do so with our fondest professional myths intact.

Which might be why today's Romanesko e-mail gave top billing to this column by Danny Westneat of The Seattle Times: "Local news can matter once more." Westneat states this idea as if he just discovered it, but if you've been in the business at any time within the past decade you've heard his sentiments repeatedly: Back to basics. Back to the street. Shoe leather. Good old-fashioned reporting. Non-institutional. Chicken dinners. Local. Local local local...

What's annoying about this prescription -- preached by every newspaper consultant I've encountered during my 16 years in the business -- is that it's bird-bath shallow. I suspect that professional newspaper journalists so readily accept it as true because it matches our template for what we want the truth to be, and we embrace it with an "old verities" passion that substitutes ingrained belief for insightful analysis. We believe it because it comforts us.

But back to Westneat, reflecting on his salad days as a rookie reporter for a now-dead small paper and the lessons we could learn from days gone by:
It covered community fairs. Printed death notices and high-school box scores and the police blotter. Watchdogged local government. Wrote up everything hometown, from heroes to rezones.

That kind of small-town newspapering is considered boring today. Unhip. Supposedly we're all too globalized or tuned into Web video clips to want such provincial news.

My own view is the opposite. I think intensely local, professionally gathered news is due for a comeback. It's the one thing you can't get anywhere else.
There are a couple of things to fisk in these three paragraphs:

1. Unhip? That's a straw man. Most executives in the metro newspaper business has been clamoring for a community-newspaper-style solution to their circulation woes since I entered the trade back in the late 1980s. It's probably why I got hired as a metro editor in the first place -- my lack of metro orthodoxy was actually considered a selling point by my new bosses. And walk into any mid-metro newsroom in America today and you'll find at least one editor armed with studies and reports who thinks that the way we'll survive in the 21st century is to "do what we do best: local news." Westneat and others like him are fighting a non-existent opponent. They're not the rebel alliance anymore: They're the Empire.

2. "Intensely local, professionally gathered news is ... the one thing you can't get anywhere else." Emphasis, please on the word "professional," because what Westneat and the hyperlocal newsroom evangelists really want to do is draw a public distinction between the professionals and the amateurs. In Newspaper World, news gathered by professionals -- and, more importantly, edited by professionals -- is just inherently better, with no supporting arguments necessary. Only when one adds the word "professional" can one make the statement that intensely local news cannot be gotten anywhere else. Because these days you can get intensely local and intensely personal news all over the place. For free.

So let's clarify these contrarian points, and let's keep repeating them until the decision-makers start to grasp them:

1. Reporting local news isn't what newspapers do best. In fact, the best medium for reporting local news is the Web (more on this later). What newspapers do best (when they choose to do it) is to condense large amounts of information into a small amount of newsprint space and reader time. From a user's perspective, a newspaper is the most efficient medium for communicating lots of information in one burst. That's a fantastic selling point for the newspaper industry, but I've never heard this concept discussed by newspaper consultants. Ever.

2. Metro newspapers aren't built to provide hyperlocal news coverage. The idea of the American metro newspaper is a 20th century phenomenon that capitalized on the need for one product that combined local, state, national and international news into one package. The central principle of the metro paper is that its news judgment emphasizes stories that have the widest appeal across multiple communities within a defined readership area, thereby capturing a fantastic economy of scale that delivered maximum eyeballs at minimal cost. So when a metro paper starts emphasizing community-level news, it's actually reversing that economy of scale: less interest at a higher cost per reader. Various metros have attempted to address this equation via various zoned-edition plans, but none of them reverse the basic math. They're spending more to get less.

3. Local news is expensive. Whether you do it at the metro level or the weekly level, community news is more expensive to produce than state or national news. To wit: If I have a one-person bureau covering my state legislature, that one reporter will provide stories with interest that crosses all my local coverage areas. Hence, one Statehouse reporter = news that's potentially relevant to all of my 250,000 readers. But a story about a Rotary Club breakfast in Mount Pleasant is of zero interest to my readers at Folly Beach, and to be blunt about it, of limited interest to Mount Pleasant residents who aren't members of the Rotary Club. So one reporter there = news of relevance to maybe a few hundred people in a community of 62,000, within a metro readership of 250,000 That's a lousy economy of scale.

If you don't "zone" the pages, then at least 99 percent of the people who get your Rotary breakfast story are going to skip over it; if you do zone it, then you're getting a lower advertising rate on the same investment of staff time. Either way, this is hardly a recipe for saving your newspaper.

5. Local-local news is a Web strength, not a print strength. In the online world, where bandwidth might as well be infinite, what I publish about Folly Beach doesn't come at the expense of Mount Pleasant coverage. In the print world, where newshole (newshole = the amount of space available for news after the ads are sold and arranged) is an extremely limited commodity, news judgment becomes a zero-sum game.

So when consultants say that "local news is what newspapers do best," what they're really saying is that we're the only traditional media with relatively large reporting and editing staffs already in place. Radio and TV stations typically field tiny news staffs, and online competitors are usually bootstrap operations. This is why smart news people are pushing their hyper-local efforts out onto the Web, where I can publish both my Rotary Club story from Mount Pleasant and my surf tournament story from Folly Beach at no additional cost, or without one choice precluding the other.

There's an additional issue here, which any metro city editor will tell you: If you emphasize local news on your front pages, readers will create impressions about which communities are most important in the eyes of the editors. Perceived slights in the presentation of local news become lingering resentments, and will actually alienate readers in areas that feel underserved or negatively portrayed. Count on it.

4. The traditional "professional" model may not be the best way to approach hyper-local news. Traditional newspaper journalism features a layered editing process and an inferred sense of news judgment that reflects the newspapers' cultural sense of what's important and appropriate. In Newspaper World, this professional care and filtering is your assurance of quality information and good taste, a virtual paper band around the news that proclaims it "Sanitized for Your Protection."

But newspaper-speak and the normative-values of a for-profit enterprise don't necessarily meet the needs, tastes or interests or modern readers. Yes, accuracy matters, but to suggest that accuracy as we define it is the only value that readers care about is to miss the point entirely. This is one of the lessons the industry should have learned from its minority readership studies, but didn't: Who gets to speak and what they get to say is an extremely important issue to some readers. By playing to the averaged-out middle, we are leaving out all kinds of voices. Our message to them, intentional or otherwise? "You don't count."

Newspaper editors discuss these issues in the abstract as policies and precedents, typically with lots of expensive input from attorneys, producing ventures that are cautious and tepid. Meanwhile, a new class of "amateurs" is filling the vacuum, creating a form of "news" so philosophically distinct from traditional news judgment that it requires a new label: Placeblogging. One of the heroes of this movement is H2Otown creator and founder Lisa Williams. Here's how she describes the difference:
Placeblogs are sometimes called “hyperlocal sites” because some of them focus on news events and items that cover a particular neighborhood in great detail — and in particular, places that might be too physically small or sparsely populated to attract much traditional media coverage. Because of this, many people have associated them with the term “citizen journalism,” or journalism done by non-journalists.

Placeblogs, however, are about something broader than news alone. They’re about the lived experience of a place. That experience may be news, or it may simply be about that part of our lives that isn’t news but creates the texture of our daily lives: our commute, where we eat, conversations with our neighbors, the irritations and delights of living in a particular place among particular people. However, when news happens in a community, placeblogs often cover those events in unique and nontraditional ways…

That's a kind of intimate informality that newspapers will never be able to match, and we would be silly to try. But when we look at hyper-local as a Web function, not a print one, then all sorts of things become possible -- including profit. A multi-layered editing process, with reporter separated from executive editor by no fewer than three or four intervening layers of editors (not to mention the enormous overhead of a legacy newsroom) will never generate enough content or traffic to make neighborhood-level coverage profitable. But successful placebloggers scale their staffing to the size of their coverage and earn enough to pay salaries. Chew on that.

5. The amateurs aren't always amateur. Lisa Williams surely can't be considered an amateur now, and Debbie Gallant of BaristaNet is a good example of what happens when a traditional journalist branches out into the placeblogging genre. So if the pro-am divide isn't the issue, what is? Perhaps it's more about culture. Perhaps its more about money. Perhaps it's more about your ideas about control, or responsibility, or propriety.

Nor should we assume that "amateur reporting" is necessarily "inferior reporting." A generic 22-year-old reporter with a J-school diploma might know how to spell "accommodate" and apply AP Style, but does that make him a better news source than a longtime resident "amateur" who knows the community inside and out? I used to be that generic J-school grad, and my new community was a minefield of hidden connections and unseen relationships. So while what I wrote was typically "accurate" (in the sense that it wasn't demonstrably wrong), it was generally devoid of understanding, context or insight.

Newspapers aren't dying, but our assumptions are. Whether we approve of it or not, news is migrating to the Web, and the newspapers that survive the coming shakeout will do so by adjusting to their roles as highly intelligent, carefully edited and moderately profitable niche publications. You can preach local-local-local all you wish, but you're chasing a lonely dollar swirling clockwise down the drain.