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Posts Tagged ‘engagement’

Ziggy
Journalism school and 26 years working as a reporter and editor have prepared me for almost anything likely to come through the newsroom, but it still galls me that people are more likely to cancel their subscriptions over the disappearance of a pantsless cartoon character than anything I have actual control over.

And it illustrates a difficulty in answering the question of what the audience is for local news.

By “audience,” I mean the portion of the public who cares enough about local news that they would be willing to pay to support the reporting of it. The audience is not the paying base of print newspaper subscribers – certainly not the larger base of 15 years ago, and not even the shrunken one we have now. It is a subset of that – perhaps a small one.

For decades, newspapers added on sections and specific features so that no matter what your interest, there probably was something in that package of disparate material that would interest you. They did this not because there was any inherent relationship in the material or it seemed logical to package it but because it was the surest way to build the readership. Perversely, adding readership could even cost the newspapers more than what they charged for a home subscription, but the bigger the readership, the higher the rates that could be charged to advertisers, which is where the big money was anyway.

And that’s exactly why the industry’s reaction to declining advertising has fueled circulation declines.

Drastic declines in advertising revenue over the past decade led to a focus on newspapers’ “core mission,” which obviously is local news. That’s what we do that you can’t find anywhere else.

That meant cutting some features that newspapers paid to get, but it also meant cutting some staff – movie reviewers, NASCAR reporters, reporters covering college sports in a distant town, food writers, science writers – especially if what they covered was also provided by the wire services the newspapers already paid for.

But that increasingly left a product that is not exactly what we originally sold our readers, and I see that all the time in my job as editor of a small local newspaper.

I don’t get that many complaints about local news.

But I get a lot of complaints from sports fans that we don’t have enough college and pro sports results in the paper. We need more agate and box scores.

I get quite a few complaints that our main news section is actually too local, with not enough national and international news in it.

I get heated complaints when the person in charge of placing the Cryptoquote puzzle in the paper screws up and leaves it out or runs the same puzzle two days in a row.

But by far the greatest number of complaints during my first year in Lenoir came as a result of two business decisions: to drop our Saturday edition, and to change our comics lineup. And almost none of the complaints had to do with missing a day of news.

The Saturday edition was dropped because it had easily the lowest single-copy sales of the week and was the edition with the least advertising – virtually no advertising, in fact. The complaints: delayed sports results (Friday night results run Sunday), a day without a chuckle from the comics, and the possibility that an obituary might be pushed to Sunday when services were Saturday.

But predictably, the worst reaction was to the comics, which changed as part of a renegotiation with syndicates and a level of standardization to help the staff in our pagination and editing hub more easily handle all of the comics pages they are responsible for.

One unintended result of the change was that the size of the crossword shrank, which prompted several people to tell me that the “only reason” they subscribed was for the crossword, which now was too small to be used. After a week, we were able to move the puzzle and fix that.

But the dropped comics – which included “Ziggy,” “Peanuts,” “The Lockhorns,” “Family Circus” and “Belvedere” – have cost us quite a few subscribers. You might note that all of the dropped ones are quite old, and some (“Peanuts,” “For Better or Worse” and “Belvedere,” for instance) have been in reruns for years. Others are on their second or third generation of artists. But people hate change. Tell a fan of “Belvedere” that no new comic had been drawn since 1995 and the response is that the fan doesn’t remember that far back, so all of them seemed new to him.
“The paper is mainly full of bad news, and Ziggy always made me smile,” one reader complained.

And there’s that age-old complaint: All the news is bad. You never print any good news.

Neither is true, but a great many people just don’t want to be bummed out. Those are the people who bought the newspaper because of all of the things besides local news that came in the package. They tossed aside all the stuff they didn’t want and turned to their 50-year-old comic strip or their word puzzle, or their sports.

But the stuff they didn’t want is what I think any reasonable person would say is the “core mission” of the local newspaper. Everything else they can find somewhere else – and have been finding it, as their local newspaper has dropped feature after feature.

Perhaps that’s why the Orange County Register’s circulation has remained flat even as new owner Aaron Kushner has brought back a hefty number of features – while also beefing up the staff that pursues the “core mission” of local news.

I have had a number of longtime readers call or mail in to tell me how much they like the newspaper since I got here, that it feels like a “real” newspaper or that the local stories are more interesting. The publisher tells me that neither here nor anywhere else she has worked has she seen so many compliments for the news.

So I know local news has an audience. But I don’t think anyone has a clue how big or small that audience might be, and circulations continue to drop.

2/5/14 UPDATE: A similar, or at least related, argument but in a much more definitive (or depressing) way by Internet pioneer and investor Marc Andreessen. Or just read this quote for the gist of the thing: “I think main problem with local news is most people don’t care.”

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In a world of dwindling newsroom resources, one of the harder questions is how much of your time and attention to place online. The view I tend to align with is that the future audience is going to be all-digital, and likely mostly mobile, so we need to make sure we are moving ourselves.

Then comes this new study that shows that when it comes to news consumption, a lot of what you put online may as well be wasted effort in comparison to how much use the print product gets: 92 percent of the consumption of news is on legacy platforms, only 8 percent on digital.

The temptation is to say that everyone should then devote 92 percent of their time and energy to the legacy platform. I know that’s too simplistic.

What if digital news consumption is relatively low because we just aren’t that good yet at grabbing digital users?

Or maybe the real message is to spend your online energies tailoring what you do present online to the on-the-run way that people use that medium, which in turn may mean there are things you are doing online now that you don’t really need to do, given how little use it is getting.

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News-Topic  -2004 logo
If you had told me I’d be back editing the Lenoir News-Topic 25 years after I left, I would have laughed. It’s not the direction I saw my career going. But Warren Buffett intervened, and in the process of saving modern journalism (if that didn’t sound sarcastic in your head, you have to read it over again) he put me and 104 other people out of jobs. Long story short, here I am, and here, in the Jan. 27 News-Topic, I make my version of Charles Foster Kane’s “declaration of principles.” If you don’t want to follow the link, here’s a summary:

I want to get the website into the 21st century, and with any luck not too long after that it might actually catch up to the current date.

I want to get the staff engaged online with the audience. In a small town, that may be a little bit redundant, but the early returns on our very embryonic start look good.

But mostly, with two new hires — one made, one in process — I’m putting good writing front and center in my reclamation project. I’ve long maintained and made the argument that in the long run, as more and more data and nuggets of information can be found for free online, good writing and creativity can make a site stand out and get readers to keep coming back. Now, in a small way, I have a chance to try it myself.

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Mike Fourcher, a publisher of hyperlocal news sites in Chicago, has written up the things he learned from the experience. It’s instructive, and I particularly recommend that other journalists read it so they better appreciate the economic forces confronting the industry. As Mike notes as his 18th thing he learned, big publications and small publications have the same problems.

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Very funny ad. Nicely done. The setup is that three people each are given a driver for the day, and a newspaper is left in the back seat for the person to read. While the person reads, the car passes various odd sights, and the driver takes off his pants. The reader doesn’t notice because he/she is too engrossed in the paper. That much is true — once you get a person reading, that person’s attention is engaged and isn’t easily pried away. The increasing problem newspapers face, though, is getting people to use the paper instead of their computer or phone, where their attention might be just as focused but the advertising is much less lucrative.

But still, give the ad-makers credit. An A for creativity.

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Yesterday I mentioned that I stopped taking the local paper in mid-November, and I said that “if the paper has produced anything important in the past six weeks, it was like a tree falling in the woods with no one nearby to hear it — which is a subject for another post.” This is that post.

I do not watch local TV news. I listen to NPR each morning, and I’m on Twitter and Facebook pretty much daily, which both point me to news from a number of outlets. Earlier this month it occurred to me that aside from one political columnist who is on the public-radio station each Friday and a columnist with whom I’m Facebook friends, not a whiff of the newspaper’s content had managed to reach me. It reminded me that there has long been discussion in the newspaper business that although the industry relies on advertising revenue, newspapers are pretty bad about advertising themselves.

The main ways that many newspapers publicize what’s in the paper each day and what big stories are coming in the days ahead are all within the newspaper itself – house ads, teasers, promos. In other words, the newspaper targets people who already are looking at the newspaper. People who do not see the newspaper, no matter the reason, will never see those efforts. This would be like a TV station running its ads and promos for its news show only during the news show.

An editor told me just last year that no one had yet explained to him what the newspaper gained from being active on Facebook and Twitter. He felt that being active made those social media platforms better and built their customer base but did nothing for the newspaper other than siphon off staff time that perhaps would be better spent improving the paper. I tried to connect these dots at that time, but I don’t think I did it well. This might be clearer: There are many people in your community who do not subscribe, but almost all of them might be interested in some specific thing the newspaper does and would come for it – if only they knew it existed. Because of the growing reach of social media, you stand a chance of reaching those people – if only you are active and engaged, which teaches you how to tailor your posts and what people are likely to share.

It’s true that a tree that falls in the forest creates a thunderous crash, but if no one is anywhere nearby, that tree could rot away before anyone knows it fell. A good news staff creates some pretty good rumbles now and then, but an awful lot of people are out of earshot of the forest. You have to find a way to amplify the noise to reach them.

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Continuing on the topic of changing what local news reporters do (I provided some links in this post a couple weeks ago), John Robinson proposes a kind of New Year’s resolution for editors:

If editors do one thing for their newspaper readers in 2013 — yes, there are a slew of things needing to be done for their digital audience in 2013 — it should be to examine how they are covering the local news. Is it what people need to understand their community? Are we covering this because it’s vital information or because we need to fill a hole in the paper? Will this story make reading the paper an indispensable act? Because if it doesn’t — and with the circulation losses papers have suffered over the past 10 years, there is evidence it doesn’t — it’s time for a change.

Meanwhile, Steve Buttry adds to his previous posts on this topic with more specific thoughts on how a newsroom might change some or all of its beats.

I fear that some people will stop reading at the point where Steve suggests a pets beat and will miss his larger point: Something has to change, and you have to start thinking about it, and what you change may be less important than having a thorough discussion about the possibilities and doing something about it.

John notes as evidence of the need for change some results of a September 2011 Pew survey: “For instance, when asked, ‘If your local newspaper no longer existed, would that have a major impact, a minor impact, or no impact on your ability to keep up with information and news about your local community?’ a large majority of Americans, 69%, believe the death of their local newspaper would have no impact (39%) or only a minor impact (30%) on their ability to get local information.”

John also cites his experience in the past year reading the front pages of a dozen Sunday papers around North Carolina and seeing too much rote, uninteresting coverage. I can go further: For the past six weeks, I haven’t read any newspapers at all, nor have I watched local TV news, and I firmly fall into the camp saying that as far as I can tell the death of my local newspaper would have only a minor impact on my ability to get local information. (I do miss certain columnists and the routine of the morning paper, but if the paper has produced anything important in the past six weeks, it was like a tree falling in the woods with no one nearby to hear it — which is a subject for another post.)

But this is where the hope for fixing local news hits a Catch-22. John quotes Philip Meyer from a 2008 online discussion about local news:

“Local is cheap to produce if you limit yourself to stenographic coverage of public meetings. But to really cover local news, you need talented, specialized reporters who are free to dig for weeks on a single topic.”

I won’t rehash all the arguments I made on this point three months ago, but I will summarize:

The success of any attempt to change or “fix” local news is ultimately dependent on publishers and the executives who supervise them agreeing with the need to restructure the newsroom pay scale and to end, where they exist, any mandates that the front page absolutely has to be all-local. Yes, I mean better pay, but I also mean fewer people in the newsroom because the revenue isn’t there to raise pay and keep the staff the same size, which is the reason publishers who want all-local front pages have to give that up in the name of getting better reporting. That also means more pressure on editors to ensure their staff follows through – more-engaged editors, more-engaged reporters.

Lord knows newsrooms have many creative, imaginative people who consider the job a calling and work cheap. But it has fewer every day – beyond layoffs, many are no longer willing to work low-paying jobs that have become content farms of rote coverage. Counting on an endless supply of new ones who are willing is likely to be as healthy for your business model as counting on an endless supply of gasoline under $4 a gallon.

1/2/13 UPDATE: A good follow-up today by John Robinson on the need for editors to confront the reality of permanently smaller staffs and how to figure out what people really want the newsroom to do.

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