In the 16 months since I came to the News-Topic, I have had the basic idea rumbling around my head for a post on the disconnect I see between posts about digital storytelling tools and the reality of small-town journalism, which accounts for the great majority of news organizations in the U.S. But I never had the time to pull my thoughts together.
Now the Duke Reporters Lab has helped do a lot of the heavy lifting for me with a study showing that there is a “significant gap between the industry’s digital haves and have-nots – particularly between big national organizations, which have been most willing to try data reporting and digital tools, and smaller local ones, which haven’t.”
I object to the word “willing” in that sentence. It may be the case in many places that there is active resistance to using data and digital tools, but I have not seen that at many of the small newsrooms I visited in my previous job or in this one. The spirit is willing at places like this, but the flesh is exhausted.
The study finds newsroom leaders citing “budget, time and people as their biggest constraints” but “also revealed deeper issues – part infrastructure, part culture. This includes a lack of technical understanding and ability and an unwillingness to break reporting habits that could create time and space to experiment.”
In the case of my organization – print circulation approximately 5,000-6,000 – I can tell you the issue is approximately 95 percent one of time and people. My news staff, including me, totals six people, one of them dedicated full-time to local sports. There is no clerk to compile our extensive events listings or obituaries. I am expected to have an all-local front page in the print product, and I have my own set of standards for what I will accept out front (and while the bar is lower than it might be at a major metro, it largely is set higher than “incremental” news). Three of my four writers have less than two years’ experience. And no matter whether I find some events very newsworthy, there are longstanding community expectations for coverage of certain things, and skipping them carries stiff costs in community relations. With all of that, I find that getting my minimum number of local stories worthy of A1 takes about all the staff time that can be managed.
I can recognize that digital storytelling is worthy in its own right, not just “bells and whistles,” and still say there is precious little room here for “difficult trade-offs” in coverage.
That’s the 95 percent obstacle. The 5 percent is primarily infrastructure and, to at least some extent, technical understanding. Simply put, our CMS seems terrible – it’s locked down, limited, balky and not at all user-friendly. But it’s possible we are wrong, since no one here has ever been able to get formal training for it. Whatever we know how to do is based on our knowledge of other CMSes each of us has used (I at other companies, and my staff at their school papers) or the bare-bones “this is how you post a story” knowledge that the existing reporting staff provided me when I arrived here.
This is not to say we don’t talk about the website, our online audience or how to engage readers online. We are active in social media, almost everyone on the staff has shot and posted video, and we have interactions with readers online. We do more online now than this newsroom ever has. We WANT to keep doing more, and I WILL keep looking for ways to do it.
But as the Duke report says: The goat must be fed. Everything else has to come later.