June 01, 2005

The $34,000 Question: What Will You Give Up to Get More Local?

Change comes with a price. The more radical the shift, the higher the cost. For newspapers, the tariff to a different future must be the sacrifice of sacred cows, damage to some newsroom egos and even the loss of some of today's readers in the hopes of securing more of tomorrow's.

At the Greensboro (N.C.) News-Record, the price was $34,000, the amount the paper paid annually for the New York Times news service. Editor John Robinson traded in the Times so he could pay for more local news coverage. In that decision is the microcosm of the value equation every change-minded newspaper editor in America must face: What do I give up in order to get something new?

Robinson announced the end of the Times service in a column and on his blog. He wrote:

"I made the decision, and I admit that I hate it.

"We aren't doing this because of that newspaper's recent ethical lapses or because it is a lightning rod for readers who see political bias in the news coverage.

"In fact, I put off the decision to cancel as long as I reasonably could. The Times produces some of the world's best journalism, and I want our readers to have access to it. But given our direction in focusing on local news, we could certainly devote the $34,000 a year we spend on the Times reports better elsewhere." (Emphasis added.)

Robinson is a leader in efforts to change newspapers for the better. He blogs, he communicates with readers, he is rebuilding the News-Record around the reader experiences identified by the Readership Institute. See here and here for additional posts by Robinson on the Times decision and on reaction from his readers.

Newsroom managers are, of course, accustomed to balancing budgets and juggling money, but what is at stake in Robinson's decision is not money, but rather the definition of what a local newspaper should be.

Under the traditional, full-service model of newspaper, all but the smallest dailies publish front pages that are a mix of the top national and international news (as determined by the AP or the syndicate wires) and staff-written local news. Editors stuff the front sections of these papers, as well as the most of the feature, business and sport sections, with mostly wire stories drawn from news budgets heavy with stories about government, economic indicators and pro and college sports.

The result is a journalistic generica, a compendium of soporific sameness the blurs the distinction of one newspaper from another. In this environment, local news is the only differentiator, the only reason for someone to buy (or read online) the Daily Blatt instead of the New York Times.

In last two decades, two forces combined to accelerate the homogenization of newspapers.

First, luxury news got cheaper. When I edited a now-defunct, 45,000 Richmond (Calif.) Independent in the early 1980s, I leaped at the opportunity when the Times and the Washington Post made their news services available to smaller papers. Foolishly, I paid the thousands per year for this name-brand news because I thought it gave the paper more cachet than an "ordinary" AP or UPI story. Also, like in Greensboro, the editorial page editor wanted the Times columnists. (Some years later, with the paper rasping in its death throes, the victim of a competitor who followed the growth to the suburbs first, I was forced to cancel the Times contract, by then renegotiated downward several times, to save a few dollars more.)

I was not alone, though, in the '80s, Times and Post bylines sprouted for the first times from the front pages of local newspapers across the country, and editors of those papers came to rely on the daily news budgets to determine play for national and international stories.

Second, newspapering became less of a craft and more of a profession. The waves of freshly graduated reporters who emerged from the nation's growing number of journalism schools in the last 20 years had ambitions that exceeded covering the local city council or prep sports or community theater. If they couldn't land a job on the Times or the Post, they brought the expectations of those papers to their local newspapers.

One the one hand, this was a good thing. Higher expectations produced better more enterprising reporting, higher writing standards and better local journalism overall. The flip side, though, was the loss of distinctive community reporting. Why cover local theater when Broadway beckoned? Why not assign (several) staff writers (and a sports columnist) to nearby pro teams? Why not have a business columnist who writes about national issues? Why not open a Washington bureau? Why not review movies or books with staff writers?

All fine and good, perhaps, but the cumulative result was an increasing number of resources -- both bodies and budget - devoted to staff-written news that replicated what the wires were already doing and for which the paper was already paying. This was not a good use of resources - paying twice (or more if you consider that many newspapers pay multiple times for the AP, Reuters, the Times, the Post, and maybe their chain's news service) for something and then throwing most of it away. These are bodies and budget aree not devoted to the one information commodity that currently (but not forever) separates newspapers from their competitors: Local news.

Jeff Jarvis pulled on a similar thread the other day when he wrote (all emphasis added):

"Does every newspaper across the country need its own movie critic? The movies are the same coast-to-coast. The information we need to decide whether to go is the same. So why not plop in Roger Ebert? Or why not plop in reviews by your funny neighbor who knows the good stuff?

"Ditto sports columnists. Ditto political columnists. Get rid of the voices on high and get more voices from down on the ground and you'll improve the conversation and save money.

"Death to commodified news: As an industry, we waste a fortune manhandling the same commodified news everybody already knows. But it's more than just a waste; it drags us down into an oppressive sameness. We all got overdosed on Schaivovision and Popevision and Bridevision. Breaking away from the pack is extremely difficult and risky, but every news outlet needs to have a unique voice and value or it will get lost in a crowd.

"Similarly, newspapers and their audiences would be best served concentrating on what they do best: local, local, local. If they gave us the local news that no one else could gather and report, they'd be worth more to us. But this, too, is a hard habit to break: not sending the 15,001st correspondent to the political conventions, not editing the already edited AP report, not printing the stock tables."

In other words, precisely during a time when other media were differentiating, when the expansion of news media and transference of publishing power from the few to the many made distinction of voice even more critical, newspapers were becoming less unique and more generic.

This brings us back to John Robinson. I asked him to elaborate on the thinking that went into his decision to trade in the Times for more local. His comments follow, with some additional thoughts by me. I've also added specific questions where originally they were much broader.

Would you lose or gain readers with an all-local front page?

Robinson: "We believe that local is the way to go. Our front page now is routinely all local, except on Mondays, when there's not much live news that happened on Sunday and we run a bit out of steam. Our research indicates that readers don't rely on us for national and international news. What we do publish is often on the national networks at 6:30 p.m. the night before so what value are we providing our readers by printing it on the front page 12 hours later?"

Robinson's question should be inscribed on the keyboard or lens cap of every journalist in America: "What value are we providing our readers?" This question cuts to the heart of the newsroom value system, the hierarchy of importance that drives every daily news decision. Competition, Authority, Individualism - these are today's newsroom values and for the most part they reflect a desire by journalists to win approval of their peers, to be good journalists. A question like Robinson's reframes journalism to reflect the values of the community, to, by contrast, be a good citizen. What might help readers? Context, Collaboration, Interaction for starters. [Read: New Values for a New Age of Journalism.]

How do readers respond the emphasis on local?

Robinson: " I hear from some who bemoan the lack of Washington coverage and foreign news, but they are often readers who have a political ax to grind. For instance, we didn't publish a story on the British intelligence report on Bush's decision to invade in 2002. (We should have, too, inside.) I heard from some folks who insisted we should have published the story across the top of the front page to show Americans the true colors of the president. But these folks, of course, already knew about the story from elsewhere so they weren't criticizing us for not giving them the news, they were criticizing us for not helping other citizens understand the world the way they understand it.

"I don't think, though, that our readers truly miss the wire service reports. I know they don't miss the Times news reports because we publish so few of them. They come in too long and too late. And, you raised the question of whether readers pay attention to the source of non-local news? I submit that they not only pay no attention to the source of a wire report, they also pay no attention to bylines, local or otherwise."

Note Robinson's comment about the value of the Times reports to his paper: "They come on too long and too late." One size of journalism does not, not should it, fit all.

Does the concept still apply that every paper, regardless of size, should be a "full service" newspaper, offering a buffet of local, national and international news as well as business, sports and entertainment?

Robinson: "People who've grown up with newspapers want the full-service options. They don't use the Internet much. They watch TV but it's gotten so frivolous in so many ways. So they rely on us. But, as you and others have noted, we can't rely on them to carry us into the future. I need to produce a newspaper that is unique, that does what no other media outlet in my community does. To me, intensely, exclusive local content is part of that.

" We still expect to be a grocery store of a newspaper - a place where someone can come in a shop for the items that interest them, whether it is local editorials, a contentious City Council argument, the astrology column, a department store ad, a high school football game preview, a "neighbor you should know" or an investigative report. But if he or she wants the 50-inch write-thru on the Bolton nomination, you're going to have to go to the gourmet store across the street and get it. (And the Sunday Times costs $5.40 here vs. $1.25 for the News & Record.)"

I have been using the full-service metaphor somewhat as a negative because it embraces the mass medium and I think newspapers must move away from trying to be provide something for everybody (mass) toward focusing on more for fewer (class), but I do like Robinson's grocery store-gourmet shop distinction.

How do you decide which national copy to keep and which to jettison?

Robinson: "Editors here are in the process of rebuilding this newspaper. We're talking about reducing national and international content to a page or two. We're experimenting with the glocal idea. (It's damned harder, though, than the essayists make it, we've found.) We're looking hard at the stock pages. With UNC, Duke, Wake, N.C. State, UNCG, N.C. A&T and three other colleges with Div. 1 sports programs within 60 miles of us, we consider major college sports local. But coverage of pro sports in any significant way is being examined. (We have already eliminated much of it.) I blocked the idea of a local movie reviewer a couple years ago because I believed that movie reviews didn't need to be local and that, in fact, we could get better reviews from the wires. I still believe that."

This is a good place to note for the record that change is hard work, and it is "damned harder" for editors like Robinson to make it happen than it is for sideline coaches like me to urge them to do it. That's why it is so important that within the newspaper industry we share the lessons learned with each new experiment, with every bold step taken, so the effort of the early adopters of change provides benefit for all. It is a conservative business and many will not venture forth into the future until others have broken a trail and declared it passable.

What do substitute for wire copy? You can't simply hire more local reporters.

Robinson: "As you note, the key question is: if we drop the national and international wire stuff, if we drop the stocks, how do we fill the space with local. We aren't willing to whip our staff any harder to produce more copy. And re-jiggering assignments can only get you so much. So, our expectation is to create what we've called a town square, but what you would identify as citizen journalism, I guess. We hope to create communities of geography in the towns surrounding Greensboro, using community columnists and citizen reporters to write about what's happening in their area. We hope this will feed an OhMyNews model that we hope to establish online and in the newspaper."
What about the Times columnists? You mentioned on your blog that they were one of the biggest appeals of the Times news service.
Robinson: " I'm less sure that my logic holds. I'd be more confident about replacing all the syndicated columnists if I knew we could replace them with equally cogent and insightful local writers. ... I'm getting dozens of e-mails and phone calls appealing to me to reconsider the cancellation of the Times News Service solely based upon the importance of Tom Friedman's column. I like Friedman's voice, too, so I understand what the loss of it means. On the other hand, he's in hundreds of other papers and available online free (for a little while). So, I don't know where I am on that."

At another point, Robinson wrote in his blog that "virtually all the people who've written to me have singled out Thomas Friedman as the item they will miss. While his voice was valuable to us, at $34,000 a year -- with a 10 percent increase this year -- the news service became impossible to justify."

(He added that the Baltimore Sun made a similar decision about the Times in January and received a similar response about Friedman. "We attempted to negotiate separate purchases of columnists, but it was a non-starter with the Times syndicate," Robinson said when he announced the decision.)

What does your decision about the Times say about the direction you want the News-Record to go?

Robinson: "In the end, we've decided that our newspaper has to move. It has to become more distinctive, more interesting, more reader-friendly. Last month, the managing editor and I decreed that we weren't publishing any more boring stories. That didn't mean we didn't want the government process stories. It means that we expect reporters and editors to report and write them in ways that are compelling and relevant. (We're still working on that.) But we think readers will move with us. Traditional readers want many of the same things that infrequent readers want: shorter stories, bigger photos, more 'news-to-use' information, more investigative reports, more stuff to talk about."

Spot stories about institutions - meetings, reports, process - and stories about crime typically make up between two-thirds and three-quarters of all newspaper coverage. Count them in your local paper over a couple of weeks. Is this where we should be spending our increasingly precious journalistic resources?

What larger issues in journalism are you trying to address?

Robinson: "Newspaper journalists have two challenges: First, we need to get over ourselves. The journalism that we consider important is still important, but we need to write it for readers not ourselves. So it needs to be shorter. And we need to use different storytelling methods. Second, we need to take more chances. We need to pay attention to the data. We need to change our direction and absorb the complaints by readers. We need to try more things.

"And we certainly don't need to dumb-down our content or water down our commitment to the fundamentals of journalism."

Great advice: Get over ourselves, take more chances and don't abandon our core mission.

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Posted by Tim Porter at June 1, 2005 09:49 PM