January 03, 2006

Big News, Big Coverage, Big Opportunity

Big spot news stories offer newspapers the opportunity to display the breadth of their reporting and organizing power, to show off the depth advantage these newsrooms still have over other traditional forms of news media as well as emerging vehicles like citizen journalism sites.

How can newspapers use their considerable resources to take advantage of this opportunity?

Big stories drive interest in news - in print, on the air and online. (See this chart from Technorati that shows how major news stories increase the number of blog posts.) This is especially true in local news, where news sources are more limited and newspapers in most communities remain the primary source of news not only for the public but also for other news outlets.

The opportunity to attract audience is huge during big news stories. It is critical at these moments that newspapers, which are having their lunch eaten on so many fronts, exploit their advantage of being able to gather and disseminate information and differentiate themselves, in print and online, from other news sources.

This is why I dinged the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram the other day for their ho-hum coverage of the prairie fires destroying communities in North Texas and Oklahoma. They let an opportunity pass.

Here, in soggy Northern California, the San Francisco Chronicle provided a better, but still imperfect, example of how to, er, "flood the zone" during a big story. When a week of steady rain caused rivers north of the Golden Gate to overflow their banks - as happens nearly every year in some towns - the Chronicle muscled up. It dispatched reporters and photographers in all directions, cleared out pages in the paper for display and generally gave the impression that it was all over the story.

But, because I live near the water and high tides last year pushed the Bay nearly to my front deck (here's my wife standing on what is usually dry land in front of our house), the storm story is personal for me and I was hungry for more. At that, the Chronicle failed to satisfy.

Online, on the Chronicle's very popular web site, SFGate, coverage was limited to little more than what was in the newspapers. There was no landing page containing all the stories. No collection of photos other than current ones. No video. No sound. No contributions from readers. No (as far as I could tell) updated storm story during the day.

I don't get it. Readership of online newspaper sites is growing, the opposite of what's happening to the print product. Yet, even a news-oriented newspaper like the Chronicle fails to take full advantage of the attention provided by this expanding audience during a story that naturally sends more readers to the web.

It should be clear by now to newspapers that their longstanding mix of news, information and advertising is increasingly and irreversibly being unbundled. Peter Rip, a venture cap guy, uses the apt analogy of the newspaper as a mainframe computer and the Internet as the enabler of disruptive businesses (Craigslist, eBay, blogs) that are the new PCs. As these more cost-effective businesses take away the newspaper's advertising content, all it will have left is its journalism. At that it must excel.

Local news remains the franchise. Interest in news rises exponentially as it nears home. Genocide in Darfur is less interesting to most people than a burglary next door. You can argue it should be otherwise, but this is human nature. Self-interest is most people's prime interest - and it has been heightened further in this age of me-media.

Last year I asked: Who is going to write for Citizen Me? [Read: Local News: Who is Going to Write for Citizen Me?] The question is key to the future of newspapers. When floodwaters are lapping at my stoop, I want all available information. I want it fresh, organized and contextual. I also want it raw - the outtakes from the pro shooters that didn't make the paper, the citizen submissions, the voices of the affected.

Why can't my local newspaper bring me all that?

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Posted by Tim Porter at January 3, 2006 10:21 AM

You wrote: "When floodwaters are lapping at my stoop, I want all available information. I want it fresh, organized and contextual. I also want it raw - the outtakes from the pro shooters that didn't make the paper, the citizen submissions, the voices of the affected. Why can't my local newspaper bring me all that?"

Lack of resources, I'd guess. Print newsrooms typically commit 100% of their resources to the daily print news report. Their online staff is usually just big enough to shovel the print content online, with few if any heads available to do more.

It takes people to gather "all available information," organize it nicely and add the raw stuff (photos, etc.) that there wasn't room for in the printed edition. Who's going to do this extra work? The print reporters (and editors) on beats unaffected by the "flood the zone" story typically don't have the expertise needed to post supplemental info to the Web, and the newsroom's few Webheads are already swamped.

A heretical but logical response at many papers would be to shut down the Washington bureau and shift those heads (if not the bodies) to adding value online. Don't hold your breath.

Posted by: Mike on January 3, 2006 11:45 AM

We did that. I got a call from my community newspaper's editor, at home, at 7:45 am, 15 minutes after the power went out. In 30 minutes I was out the door, camera in hand, to post updates on our web site. We did 10 bulletins through the morning and early afternoon, and posted photos from staffers and readers into an evolving gallery. The gallery has been hugely popular, driving our site traffic up to 10 times normal. We updated the stories as the week progressed, posting in advance of the print edition when needed to get information out. It's been exhausting but exhilarating work.

Posted by: James Moehrke on January 6, 2006 02:48 PM
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