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Posts Tagged ‘hyperlocal’


A man who called the News-Topic on Friday didn’t dilly dally.

“You ought to send a reporter over,” he said without any preamble. “Ricky Skaggs stayed at the Comfort Inn last night and he’s still there. I just saw him.” Then he hung up.

Skaggs, the famous country and bluegrass musician, performed Thursday night at the J.E. Broyhill Civic Center, and after the show his tour bus headed up the highway to the hotel. Clearly, he preferred to spend the night in a stationary bed rather than on a bus.

No reporters were available, so I grabbed a camera and headed to the hotel. I thought I might get a photo of Skaggs and his band boarding their bus to leave.

When I got there, the bus was parked at one edge of the parking lot, clearly still in “night” mode – the bus’s sleeper compartment was still extended, and a roll-down shade covered all the windows at the front of the bus. There was no activity. It seemed unlikely anyone would be leaving soon. The deadline for checkout at the hotel was still two hours away.

I briefly contemplated hanging around to wait. It would be a nice shot to have.

But the more I thought about it, the more the idea made me feel like Mayor Pike on “The Andy Griffith Show,” who would lose his mind and all sense of proportion at the mere suggestion of a celebrity showing up in Mayberry.

Did I really want to stake out the Comfort Inn? After all, he probably would be dressed like anyone else in that situation: in casual, comfortable clothes, all set to spend the coming day on a bus.

And that’s what it comes down to. Skaggs is a famous person, but in all the ways that matter he’s a person like anyone else. Yes, it’s notable that he was staying here, and people would like to know – and now you do – but lurking outside hotels is what paparazzi do. Does anyone want a stranger shooting their photo first thing in the morning?

And I had another consideration. There’s a saying in football and other sports that is intended to discourage excessive celebrations over small accomplishments: Act like you’ve been there before. There must be a corollary for situations like this.

If there’s a celebrity in our midst, maybe we should act like we’ve seen a celebrity before. “Oh, hi, Ricky. How’d you sleep? How about some coffee?”

After all, why shouldn’t Ricky Skaggs stay the night in Lenoir after a concert? What’s the alternative? The hotels here are no different than their counterparts in the same chains in Hickory, and after a long, tiring performance would anyone really want to drive an extra 20 to 30 minutes when there’s a perfectly good hotel just 4 miles up the road?

And I’d rather that a famous person decided to stay here rather than felt an urgent desire to get as far away from Lenoir as possible just as soon as he could.

I can think of several reasons a person not only wouldn’t want to avoid Lenoir but might prefer staying the night here. For one, people here are friendlier than they are even just one county over. That’s been my experience, and I’ve heard it from many others. Also, nights here almost always are truly quiet. If what you want is sleep, you are better off trying it in a small town. Maybe one reason he stayed is we don’t have paparazzi here.

I had mostly made up my mind during my one drive around the parking lot. Driving back out onto Blowing Rock Boulevard, I only became more sure.

By the time I got back to my office, I had an answer ready if anyone else called about Ricky Skaggs staying the night.

Well of course he spent the night in Lenoir. Why wouldn’t he?

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Sitting under a tiki-decorated patio umbrella in the early evening heat Wednesday at downtown Lenoir’s Hogwaller Stage, my wife and I chatted with a 50-something Caldwell County native as we waited for the sun to drop behind the county office building and a band to begin playing.

This is the third summer that you can find outdoor music with your dinner and drinks one or more evenings a week at Hogwaller, which is on Church Street directly behind 1841 Café, but our friend said he wasn’t even aware there was a stage there until just a couple of weeks ago.

He had a friend he had asked to meet him there. While we were talking to him, she texted him a question: Where is Hogwaller?

She had never heard of it either, though the name “hogwaller” in relation to that spot downtown long predates either of them.

In fact, this man — born and raised here, never lived anywhere else, and active in the community — had never even heard of 1841 until that first trip. He didn’t know that right across Main Street from it was another restaurant, the Side Street Pour House, with 40 beer taps and full bar.

We didn’t talk about it, but I would wager that if he didn’t know about all that, he didn’t know that a couple of blocks west is Loe’s Brewing, serving craft beer with gourmet burgers, pasta and sometimes a few other things, or just a little farther west Joan’s Sourdough Bread (fresh bread plus lunch), or Essie and Olive (known for popsicles but also serving lunch), or the Corner Creamery (ice cream!), or J&A General Store, or the soon-to-open Fercott Fermentables (home brewing supplies, beer and wine). I could go on.

I’ll assume he knows of the downtown antique stores, as well as Piccolo’s Pizza, which has been downtown since he was a young man.

This is something I keep encountering.

A few years ago a woman who grew up in Happy Valley and lived here all her life said she had no idea what was in downtown Lenoir or even what the streets were — she had never been.

When Lenoir had its first-ever beer garden at a street festival a couple of years ago, a woman who lives in Lenoir was irritated to find out about it only after the fact.

Last year a man who moved to Gamewell a number of years ago from another state said he didn’t even know how to get to downtown Lenoir — even though he had been to the U.S. Post Office there many times. He just went straight to the Post Office and then straight back out again. After I told him to just go another block or so farther west than he had before, suddenly he discovered Piccolo’s, his new favorite pizza place.

“Love the layout,” he wrote to me, “feel like I’m on a set for the TV show American Pickers!”

Similarly, the Caldwell County Economic Development Commission’s program “Hired Education,” in which a set of 30 local teachers get a three-day immersion in the local economy, consistently prompts expressions of surprise among its participants: They toured companies they never heard of before, or saw machines they never dreamed existed in buildings they pass every day, and involving jobs they had no idea anyone in Caldwell County held.

A man walked into the lobby of the News-Topic a couple of weeks ago and asked if there’s a shoe-repair place in town. Yes, about three blocks from our office.

Need I point out that all of these places and businesses have been in the newspaper within the past few years?

No one is more acutely aware of how much smaller newspaper staffs are than they used to be, and how much less they are able to cover than they once could, than a newspaper editor is. But there still is a lot of local knowledge missed by people who don’t regularly read the paper, whether on paper or on our website. It doesn’t cross their personal experience or their Facebook feed. It’s information that won’t seek you out. You have to look for it, without knowing for sure what you’re looking for. That’s one thing the newspaper is still good for, and it’s not a small thing.

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I spent most of the 12 years before coming to Lenoir trying to translate the national discussions about new media and news transformation for small newsrooms. Everyone talks in terms of big newsrooms and metro papers. But in terms of the national media scene, those are a minority of news organizations. The things that are of top importance in their newsrooms are luxurious daydreams for most newsrooms in the country.

In that sense, I was amply prepared for my current job. Yet I remain frustrated that smaller newsrooms, even those much larger than mine, seem to be less than an afterthought in journalism-discussion circles.

Take, as just one example, the Denver Post memo about the paper’s newsroom reorganization, much publicized and much discussed. “As part of the public meetings starting later in July, think about what The Post should cover, how should we be organized, what beats would you start and which would you eliminate,” it says.

It is the latest of many news conversations focused on rethinking what newspapers do cover versus what we should.

Good. I agree. Let’s rethink it.

I have four reporters in my newsroom, with these beats: sports (all), justice (cops and courts, countywide), city-county (Lenoir city government plus county government), and education plus the other five and a half (one is on the county line) small towns throughout the county.

I have no idea how I might reconstruct things to get better coverage. Literally everyone is a generalist. Half of all stories, at least, are what the city folk would call general assignment.

Do I stop having people cover the small towns in the county? That one reporter would like having Monday and Tuesday nights back, but the town leaders would view it as abandoning coverage, which would feed the negative narrative in the towns about our coverage. They are small towns. The average citizen in Charlotte may not give much weight to what his or her city council member thinks of the Observer’s coverage, but in Gamewell the elected officials are authorities, to many, and if they go around saying the newspaper doesn’t care, that carries significant weight.

Or maybe there should be no beats based on government structure at all. Except that my reporting staff is entirely under the age of 25 and from places other than here. Where would they begin? Beats, lets remember, are structure and help a new reporter figure out where to begin.

Or perhaps everyone would agree with me, that my newsroom is smaller than anyone would contemplate trying to reorganize beat structures.

Yes, well, move on, then, but it won’t mean I am less affected by the restructuring of media habits, advertising and news consumption patterns than you are.

The national discussion in journalism is divorced from the reality that the majority of papers face. Yet I know it is what the people on my staff will face if and when they decide to seek a job at a larger newsroom. And I know, from experience, that whatever larger newsrooms confront now will manifest themselves eventually in smaller newsrooms. Except it will be different, and no one will talk much about it then.

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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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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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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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