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For the past four years, I have wondered why there has been no equivalent of Craigslist for obituaries. The question was sparked by a post by Steve Buttry in 2010, but it wasn’t until my mother’s death in May 2012 that I learned myself how truly awful – and expensive – the newspaper-based obituary system is. Submitting obituaries is, in many cases, cumbersome and emotionally taxing, exactly the opposite of what people who are placing obituaries need, and the cost of a single obituary in larger newspapers is equivalent to what I spend on my credit card in an entire month.

The difficulty and cost of placing obituaries is pretty much equivalent of some of the reasons people migrated away from newspaper classified ads years ago to free or cheap online listings (and why journalists themselves shifted their own job ads from the expensive Editor & Publisher, which used to be the go-to place to look for a job, to the relatively cheap journalismjobs.com).

Why, I have wondered, had that not happened with obituaries?

Part of it, I am sure, is that having a print obituary still has some emotional value to people. They can hold it, put it in a scrap book, frame it. It’s a tangible link to someone who is no longer there.

Perhaps a bigger part is that people grew up with newspapers being considered the place to announce births, engagements, marriages and deaths. There are people in the city where I live now who have told me that if it weren’t for their desire to see who died, they wouldn’t buy the paper anymore, and I doubt that I am the only editor who has been told such a thing.

Despite all that, I wondered why there was not a cheap online alternative to obituaries.

And then last week, the people behind The Memorial Post sent me a link to a video explaining their cheap online alternative to obituaries. The site itself is not actually functional yet (it has only the video and a field to sign up for email updates), so I can’t say whether it’s as easy as the video makes it appear, but the video paints a picture of a potential Craigslist for obituaries – a site that could siphon away yet another revenue category from newspapers.

An online-only obituary site might not appeal to traditional print readers, but it may seem perfectly reasonable to those raised on the Internet.

My newspaper is in a mostly rural, conservative, very traditional area, yet our website’s metrics tell me that the people coming to our site online may be part of the audience that would be willing to go to an online-only obituary alternative.

More than 60 percent of our online readers are under 35, according to Google Analytics, and only 11 percent are 55 or older.

Our online obituaries have more pageviews than any other page but the homepage, accounting for nearly 15 percent of overall pageviews – and our obits are not fancy, consisting only of the text of each obit, no photos.

In other words, for someone who gets information primarily online, our obits are not a satisfying reader experience.

We are a small publication, so our charge for obituaries is not much more than The Memorial Post’s, but if the Post’s online reader experience lives up to what its video promotes, it is the kind of thing that has serious potential going forward, as fewer of the people placing obituaries will have ever had the newspaper habit.

UPDATE: Via Twitter, ‏@TheMemorialPost says, “We are on schedule for mid-August and the U/X will be unparalleled”

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One of my reporters seemed stunned recently to hear me say that one day most people probably would get all of their news, including their hometown news, from Web and mobile devices. She was barely out of college and a member of the generation of “digital natives” who grew up with the Internet, yet she somehow had a baby boomer’s romantic attachment with the printed page. The newspaper’s website to her was a public service, to make news quickly available in case it was needed, but not a replacement for ink on paper. Why would there not be a demand for a printed newspaper?

I think I was more stunned to hear her than she was to hear me. I thought maybe she was joking.

We had never had an extended discussion about the news business model. I knew she was adamantly opposed to charging online readers for access to the website. She knew that advertising essentially pays the bills for a newspaper but that print circulation and advertising have been in industry-wide decline.

Yet somehow she had not done the 2 + 2 math and thought out where that all leads.

And then today Steve Buttry posted a link to a piece by Clay Shirky that fairly bursts with exasperation at people who have remained stubbornly print-centric and cheered on Aaron Kushner’s attempt, now apparently failing, to reinvigorate the Orange County Register with a fiercely print-first model, investing in more staff and more pages. Shirky has an anecdote similar to mine:

A year or so ago, I was a guest lecturer in NYU’s Intro to Journalism class, 200 or so sophomores interested in adding journalism as a second major. (We don’t allow students to major in journalism alone, for the obvious reason.) One of the students had been dispatched to interview me in front of the class, and two or three questions in, she asked “So how do we save print?”

I was speechless for a moment, then exploded, telling her that print was in terminal decline and that everyone in the class needed to understand this if they were thinking of journalism as a major or a profession.

That’s a thought I don’t like to think. I know that there are people of all ages who like to read, and importantly there are children, teenagers and 20-somethings out there who read newspapers and printed books – I see them in coffee shops, or in photos that friends post on Facebook of their children – but in general the way of the world is moving in the opposite direction. Fewer people do.

A couple of days ago, my wife was in a coffee shop downtown when a teenage girl there was told by the shop owner that she was in a picture in our newspaper’s print coverage of the Pop Ferguson Blues Heritage Festival. The girl didn’t care. Then my wife told her that the newspaper also put the photo on Facebook. The girl instantly went to find it online.

Many people have a sentimental attachment for reading on paper. But sentiment isn’t a business model.

UPDATE: Another view: “Print is under pressure but it does have a real business model, one that brings in real revenues.

“The sensible strategy is to not walk away from a print business model that works, that continues to do great journalism, that provides many good journalism jobs. Keep that print revenue coming in and keep looking for new approaches on the digital side, trying to create a digital business model that brings in real money.”

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The goat must be fed
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.

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I’m suddenly feeling much better about how my small newspaper is doing online after a recent post by Poynter’s Sam Kirkland that said:

“The latest report by analytics firm Parse.ly indicates large news sites see a greater percentage of visitors return within 30 days than small news sites do. … Sites with more than 10 million monthly visitors saw a 16 percent return rate, while sites with fewer than 1 million monthly visitors saw a 9 percent return rate. … Across Parse.ly’s entire network, an average of 11 percent of visitors returned to a site within 30 days.”

The monthly return rate on newstopic.net currently is 59.9 percent, if our Google Analytics are to be believed.

But I don’t know why that should be surprising. Unless you have local ties, you would not have much reason to seek out the content available from the News-Topic. If the hypothesis is that reader loyalty ought to make our site more attractive to online advertisers, then our site is an undiscovered gem, though our audience size (about 36,000 visitors in the past month) makes it a tiny gem.

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News item: “Facebook is rolling out a new tool that allows its users to track their friends in real time.

“Flipping on the feature in the Facebook mobile app lets you share your general or specific location with friends.”

You’re at your favorite isolated getaway, finally alone. No squabbling family or demands from a boss or spouse. Stretched out on a chaise lounge in the sun, you close your eyes and doze off. You awake to the sound of nearby footsteps.

“HEY, there you are! Wake up, sleepy head!”

You blink and look up. Someone is silhouetted against the blue, perfect sky, but you’d know that head anywhere. “Oh, uh, Bill? Hey.”

“Hey! Having fun, right, relaxing in the sun.”

You’re still groggy. “Right,” you say, but you’re wondering what he’s doing here.

“Hey! I got an idea. Let’s head into town! I know just the spot! This area is practically my second home.”

Oh no, you think. Oh no oh no oh no. “I don’t know,” you say.

“Oh, come on! You’ll love it.” Bill pulls up a chair and sits, then reaches into your cooler and pops open a can.

“Help yourself,” you say. Bill misses your sarcasm. “Say, Bill, what brings you here?”

“My car. HA! Get it? My car brings me here!” Bill always laughs at his own jokes. “I slay me,” he says.

“Yeah, no I mean did you just happen to spot me as you were driving past on your way somewhere?” you ask. “The coincidence of it just struck me.”

“No coincidence, buddy, Facebook showed me you were here.” He holds up his phone, and you see a tiny version of your disembodied head at the center of the map on the screen.

“Oh, yeah,” you say, “Facebook.” You thought you had turned off the friend-finder feature. You reach into your pocket to check.

“Yeah. You know, I’m glad I checked it, because otherwise I probably would have just stayed home this weekend. Imagine that!”

You try not to look too startled.

“But then I looked, and I said to myself, ‘Now that’s a plan!’”

Your phone’s Facebook app shows you that the friend-finder app is indeed on. You toggle it to off. But then the icon slides back by itself. You slide it back. It won’t stay and slides back to on. “I think I need to reboot the phone,” you say.

“Tell you what!” Bill says. “I’ll go make a store run and be back lickety split! Then we can both start relaxing!”

You hold down the phone button to reboot it, nodding at Bill.

“You need anything?” Bill asks.

“No, I’m good.”

Bill walks to his car as your phone’s screen lights up again. You open Facebook. Friend-finder is still on. You toggle it to off – but it keeps sliding back. You sigh and start to contemplate the drive back home. Or – you get an idea – maybe a long-distance drive, to Palo Alto, Calif. You use your phone’s voice-recognition feature and ask it a question: “Where does Mark Zuckerberg live?”

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Let’s be 100 percent clear about this: There is no survey that designated the Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton area, where I live, as one of the nation’s “most miserable cities,” no matter what you read on Facebook or in a newspaper or saw on the Charlotte TV news.

What did happen is that the Gallup polling organization and a company called Healthways – which sells its services to businesses looking for ways to decrease health costs while boosting performance – issued the 2014 version of an annual report that, among other things, ranked 189 metropolitan statistical areas based on a nationwide survey of more than 500,000 people, who were asked about their height and weight, how much they exercise, how many servings of fruits and vegetables they eat, whether they smoke, how much stress they think they are under and whether they have health insurance.

The pollsters plugged those answers into a formula and came up with a number expressing each area’s “overall well-being.”

Note that nowhere in the evaluation is any expression of miserableness.

If you look at the Gallup-Healthways site ranking the communities, you find stress on the positives, such as, “There are tangible policies that communities can adopt to actively cultivate and improve residents’ well-being.”

This is the most-negative thing that Gallup-Healthways said in its reporting:

“Huntington-Ashland also trailed all other metros in 2008, 2010, and 2011; its score of 58.1 in 2010 remains the lowest on record across five reporting periods spanning six years of data collection.”

This is the second-most-negative, and it involves our region and two others in the bottom 10:

“None of these metro areas are strangers to the bottom 10 list, with each community having appeared at least once on the list in a prior reporting period.”

That’s it. It’s not so bad, and it doesn’t come close to “miserable.” How could it when the 189th-ranked metro area’s overall score is barely 13 points lower than the top-ranked metro?

And if you study the individual scores in the separate categories of the survey, what killed the Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton area’s score was that too many people smoke and not enough people exercise regularly. In every other category, our scores were solidly in the middle of the pack, but in those two, our scores are pretty bad — we had the fourth-highest smoking rate and 12th-lowest exercise rate.

So where, you may wonder, did the term “most miserable cities” come about?

This is a tale of the Internet and the term “clickbait.” Companies that make most of their money from Internet advertising need to be able to get lots and lots of people to come to their sites because the advertiser pays based on how many people see the page that the ad is on. To do this, some sites write headlines that are at least somewhat misleading. In other words, they bait people into clicking the headline.

The “America’s most miserable cities” headline is one of those.

Whoever did it hoped that the reaction would be, “Oh my God! We live in (or know someone who lives in) one of America’s most miserable cities! I have to post this to Facebook!” Which then would be followed by lots and lots and lots more people clicking on the link to go to the site to see the list. Better yet, the headline also appears on a photo gallery, requiring people to click through all 10, which gooses the website’s statistics even more.

That “miserable” designation apparently originated at a website called 24/7 Wall St., and it spread far and wide via Yahoo!, among others (the one I saw on Facebook was on Yahoo!).

Until online advertisers decide that sheer volume of clicks is not a good measure of the value they get for their advertising dollar, you’ll probably keep seeing things like that.

But I can say this for sure: Any reporter or editor at any newspaper or TV station who picked up the “miserable” terminology without checking to see whether the word really appeared in the survey is a miserable excuse for a journalist.

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If innovation is all about learning how to fail, the news business is innovating its butt off.

This morning brought the news that Digital First Media, which has been making the industry’s biggest, hardest, loudest pitches for transformation away from print-centered operations, is going to close its biggest innovation, Project Thunderdome, and may begin selling newspapers.

A number of the names attached to DFM’s digital push I first became aware of because of their work elsewhere, especially Jim Brady, Steve Buttry and Mandy Jenkins. Many of the things they have advocated have felt, on a gut level, like the right things to do to get to the future of the news business. They have demonstrated ways to build engagement online and build news audience online even as the decades-long decline in newspaper circulation, which long predated the Internet, continues and TV audiences erode.

The problem, as ever, is that while most people seem to agree that the future of news is digital and mobile, the “business” part of it doesn’t seem able to innovate or migrate its way as quickly as the news part can.

Now if DFM has faltered, as the innovative hyperlocal site TBD did before it, will others pull back?

Publishers have always been wary of venturing quickly into the digital realm without proof they can generate revenue there equal to what they lose by dropping print, so doesn’t this provide just one more excuse to slow down?

And because the Orange County Register’s efforts to boost business by reinvesting in the print product also appear to be going nowhere, the new mantra in news might just become, “Don’t just do something, stand there.”

But when you know the beach is eroding under your feet, just standing there isn’t much of an option. I think we all have to keep looking at the kinds of things TBD, DFM and others have been trying, and pick the ones that make sense in our own newsrooms with the staff we have. Pick up the flag and keep marching forward.

UPDATE: Steve Buttry makes the argument that you can’t call Thunderdome a failure (or TBD either) because it was never given enough time to succeed. I think he’s correct, but I don’t think the folks who can put money into these kinds of things will examine the merits of his argument closely. I’m afraid the narrative that will be constructed from the outside will say that what was tried at Thunderdome, and TBD, clearly failed or the plug wouldn’t have been pulled.

On another topic, I also just read the post from Digital First CEO John Paton explaining today’s moves. It says, in part:

“In the past two years we have learned a tremendous amount from Project Thunderdome much like others that have come before it like our Ben Franklin Project.

“We have explored, experimented but more importantly we have learned and have a much higher level of digital skills than we did before. And, best of all, a higher level of confidence in our digital abilities across our entire Company.

“Our skills in data journalism, video production, website and mobile developments are all the better for Project Thunderdome.

“But what once were fairly isolated skills located in one place are now skills shared by many in our Company. Where once initiatives, like Project Unbolt were led centrally, we now have divisions taking their own Digital First initiatives.”

In other words, Thunderdome was so successful that the company no longer needs it.

Project Unbolt, by the way, was announced Jan. 29. I guess that would make it the most successful digital initiative ever because it made itself obsolete in barely more than two months.

Maybe it’s not Orwellian of Paton to put it that way, but on a much smaller scale I have seen what happens when “successful” initiatives driven by corporate HQ suddenly end. Often, so does the success; what you thought was “buy in” was editors telling staff, “Just do it and get corporate off my butt, OK?” If that was the case at any DFM properties, it should be clear before long — probably in much less time than Thunderdome had to build these new skills and habits across DFM.

4/3/14 UPDATE: Good business perspective from Alan Mutter:

“In other words, the objectives of the Digital First investors were the antithesis of the patience – and multimillion-dollar commitment – required in the slog to identify successful interactive publishing models, whatever they eventually may turn out to be.

It would be a mistake to view the failure at Digital First as a failure of digital publishing or a reason to stop trying to get it right.”

4/4/14 UPDATE: Great contribution of context by Mandy Jenkins, which among other things further points out the corporate babble of Paton’s statement about Thunderdome having been so successful. Among other things:

“Thunderdome never even got the chance to carry out even the beginnings of our goals. Many of our long-planned channels just started launching. We had a number of new revenue-generating products on the horizon. We had just started building our in-house product team.”

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Reading about attracting news audiences and revenue for online news sites has often been depressing. Even for someone who believes in the need for meeting the audience where it is and adapting to the needs of online and mobile news consumers, at times it has felt like the future was heading toward a world dominated by Buzzfeedy listicles and clickbait and Upworthy-worthy headlines, where all advertising revenue is forever lagging and all audiences are zephyrlike transients.

You can simultaneously believe that not just journalism but locally oriented journalism is necessary for society but feel overwhelmed by skepticism about how many people out there have the same belief and will actively seek it in numbers that will support some kind of sustainable revenue model.

But recent weeks have brought some research to stoke your optimism.

The American Press Institute reported this week on a survey by the Media Insight Project, an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, about news-consumption habits:

“When asked to volunteer how they came to the news, people tend think less about the device than the news gathering source and the means of discovery (social media or search). Taken in combination, the findings suggest that people make conscious choices about where they get their news and how they get it, using whatever technology is convenient at the moment.”

The survey also found that people do notice what strengths different news organizations have, for instance turning to local TV sources (TV itself or a TV station’s website) for weather, traffic, crime, and health news, and newspaper sources for news about their local town or city, for news about arts and culture, and for news about schools and education.

And hasn’t that been one of the underlying hopes of traditional journalists, that our existing “brand” is more than our traditional medium or platform, that the public associates our news organization with the news we produce?

That’s what this survey indicates is the case – they seek us out for news, not just, as often is said, wait for any news that really is important to find them:

“Overall, for instance, social media is becoming an important tool for people across all generations to discover news — but hardly the only one, even for the youngest adults.

“… People across all generations are most likely to discover news by going directly to a news organization, rather than letting the news come to them.”

Super.

We can check off that part of how to survive the future.

That still leaves revenue, the front that has been the bleakest, where analog dollars turn to digital dimes, if that.

But Tony Haile, the CEO of data-analytics company Chartbeat, wrote in a column last week for time.com on research by his company that finds that audiences drawn to actual news may hold more value for advertisers than those on other sites because they pay attention to the page and linger longer. Why that matters:

“Someone looking at the page for 20 seconds while an ad is there is 20-30% more likely to recall that ad afterwards.”

And best of all, it may be that news organizations have undervalued their advertising slots that are lower on the digital page, especially below the “fold” where ads and content aren’t seen unless the viewer scrolls:

“Here’s the skinny, 66% of attention on a normal media page is spent below the fold. That leaderboard at the top of the page? People scroll right past that and spend their time where the content, not the cruft, is. Yet most agency media planners will still demand that their ads run in the places where people aren’t and will ignore the places where they are.”

Pair this with the results of a study by the Pew Research Journalism Project that found that “People who visit a news organization’s website directly engage with its content more than those who enter ‘sideways’” through social media and other referrels, as Andrew Beaujon wrote last week at Poynter.org.

The Pew report, “Social, Search and Direct: Pathways to Digital News,” said:

“In this study of U.S. internet traffic to 26 of the most popular news websites, direct visitors — those who type in the news outlet’s specific address (URL) or have the address bookmarked — spend much more time on that news site, view many more pages of content and come back far more often than visitors who arrive from a search engine or a Facebook referral.

“… For news outlets operating under the traditional model of building a loyal, perhaps paying audience, obtaining referrals so that users think of the outlet as the first place to turn is critical.”

This doesn’t suggest to me that all the time newsrooms spend now trying to engage audiences on Facebook, Twitter or other social sites is wasted or even that it should be cut back. It puts your news in front of audiences, including some people who are not regular readers or viewers. That exposure may be critical in building your brand in the minds of that portion of the audience.

That makes it up to you to be sure that what you have lured them to is news they find worthwhile enough that they come back on their own.

And that has always been the name of the game for survival in news.

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“The paper is mainly full of bad news.”

A reader, or maybe by now it’s more accurate to call her a former reader, included that in a letter this week. News, as defined by what most news organizations write about, was at the very bottom of the list of things she wants in a newspaper. (“Ziggy” was at the top.)

It’s a complaint that editors have heard at times literally for decades. It’s not true, though. Just looking through the past week’s front pages of my paper (which is published Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday):

Last Sunday had a story about a young boy who appears to be recovering from a near-fatal blood infection.

Tuesday had a story alerting readers of the coming Red Dress Dance to benefit the Wig Bank, one of the community’s many great charities.

Wednesday had a feature about John Hawkins, who plans to step down as director of the Caldwell Heritage Museum at the end of the year.

Thursday had a picture of children playing in the snow, and a promotional teaser about a feature on the sports page on the county’s high school runner of the year.

Friday had a feature about a man who puts together giant jigsaw puzzles.

We try as much as we can to present a mix, reflecting to some extent the variety of daily life in this community.

I don’t think it’s a majority view, but there definitely is a certain segment of the population who would rather the paper be filled only with positive news.

But that would not seem to be what most people want. Go to any newspaper in the country and ask to see the best-selling and worst-selling papers of the past year, and check the website metrics, and you’ll be able to tell. I have a list of ours, and the worst-selling papers almost all were dominated by feel-good stories: the first day of school, the fiddler’s convention, a feature on a man living atop a mountain who has a lot of weather-watching instruments, a feature on a retiree, a festival preview, a positive business news story – on and on.

The top-selling papers by far, and the top website headlines, have been anything involving a killing or anything involving the bankruptcy of Furniture Brands International, one of the largest local employers.

You might argue that the high interest in bad news indicates that people like prurient news, kind of the print version of reality TV, but that’s not how I see it at all.

One thing that makes bad news inherently more attractive as reading material is that it’s more dramatic, which makes it more interesting.

And sometimes there certainly is a “there but for the grace of God go I” element at play. Stories of lives upended grab people and engage their emotions. Often, people call the News-Topic wanting to offer help to people whose tragedies have been told in the paper.

But mostly, I think people are looking for things to talk about. When they get together with friends or coworkers, someone is going to say, “Hey, did you hear about,” and launch into the most interesting thing that person has heard or read recently, and there is always a lot more to talk about when something bad happens than when something good happens.

“Did you hear? All of the planes coming to Charlotte yesterday landed safely.”

By definition, news is something unusual or unexpected. You expect your house not to burn down. You expect to arrive safely at your destination. You expect not to lose your job because the company is going out of business. You expect all these things because that’s what almost always happens, and it’s unusual when it doesn’t.

That’s why if any newspaper, TV station or website focused on local news ever makes a lot of money reporting nothing but good news it will be one of the biggest news stories of the year.

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Santa letter
Santa may be coming on Tuesday night with a sleigh loaded down with toys, but he’s leaving with enough cookies and milk to choke the U.S. Army, if the letters to Santa printed in my newspaper’s special section this weekend are any indication.

(I was able to get an early peek because one of the little-known duties of local newspaper editors is to serve as a temp administrative assistant for Santa, sorting his mail and typing.)

Most everyone plans to leave out cookies and milk, kind of a quid pro quo: Here are all the toys I want, and since you do such a good job there’s a little something extra that will be waiting for you by the tree.

Except one kid who was going to leave out some cheesecake. Santa probably appreciates a break from all the cookies and milk (one child said he was leaving out some water because he thinks Santa doesn’t like milk – and after the first few hundred gallons, he probably doesn’t).

If you don’t have young children, the letters give you a glimpse into a world you didn’t know existed: the world of what children in 2013 play with. Ever hear of Lalaloopsy dolls? I hadn’t, but they appear to be THE thing for many girls – almost as big a deal as Monster High dolls, which I would have assumed were based on a cartoon, but Wikipedia says I’m mistaken: “The characters are inspired by monster movies, sci-fi horror, thriller fiction, and various demons therefore distinguishing them from most fashion dolls.”

Skimming through the letters, you see a lot of things multiple times. The iPod, iPad and iPhone, for instance, all come in for repeat mentions.

Every now and then, though, something pops out: “I would like a castle and a jail.”

That’s all, just a castle and jail. Everyone knows Santa can read children’s minds, so he’ll know what that means, but I can’t shake the image of a 4-year-old boy in a stone fortress ordering his guards to toss his older siblings into his private dungeon.

“I would want two coloring books for my brother and sister. And two big Christmas hats. And three medium hats.”

Somebody really likes hats.

Another thing the kids say is how good they have been this year. Most of them say that. Some toss in qualifiers:

“I’ve been very good cause I didnt do nothing.”

“I been good this week.”

“I think I have been pretty good this year. Last year I deserved coal for being bad.”

“I was gonna be a good boy but I dont know what happened.”

One turned the issue around: “Hey Santa, have I been a good boy?”

A few slipped in what I took to be pleas for justice that the children feel is not being adequately dispensed at home:

“I have already written what I want so can you please get my mom some earrings and my brother dustin some coal and he is sixteen!”

“I been good this year my brother has not been good.”

“I’ve been very good but Isaiah aint.”

I haven’t written to Santa in something like 45 years, but all together, the letters inspired me.

Dear Santa,

I have pretty much everything I really need already, but there is one thing I really want for Christmas this year, and you wouldn’t even have to leave it at my house. What I really want is a solution to the news industry’s declining revenue. I know that I haven’t always been good this year, but surely somewhere in the country is a journalist who has been good all year and deserves to have this solution first. … Well, maybe that’s expecting too much.

In that case, could you just send me an easygoing billionaire who likes reading and will buy my newspaper and let me hire another 10 or 12 reporters?

If not that, then at least how about some nice hats?

Thank you, Santa. I know you’ll do your best. I don’t have any cookies in the house, but there’s beer in the fridge.

Love,

Guy

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