January 09, 2006

The Sunday Not-So-Funnies

There are three Sunday newspapers on my kitchen table - the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Marin Independent Journal.

Collectively, they represent the breadth of the current state of American newspapers - the consistent excellence of the national Times, the more sporadic quality and struggle for focus of the large regional Chronicle, and the earnest, but frequently mediocre locality of the small Independent Journal.

Individually, none satisfies my local news needs. The Times has no local. The Chronicle spreads itself so thin across a region of 7 million people that its local impact outside San Francisco is occasional and diluted. The IJ delivers the rote basics of institutional coverage, but without flair, nuance or sophistication.

Together, I paid $7.75 for these three newspapers - the cost of a paperback, two issues of Vanity Fair, a movie matinee or eight iTunes, any of which I would have used more fully than the newspapers. Rarely do I not finish a book or walk out of movie or buy songs I don't want to hear. But, I do toss 90 percent of more of most newspapers onto the recycle heap unread. As a media bundle, newspapers offer the poorest signal-to-noise ratio available.

Like Michael Kinsley, there was a day when I could not have imagined a day without reading a newspaper. Increasingly, though, I see that day coming - even for me. Getting the news online is far easier (my wife's Wall Street Journal is delivered without fail in the parking lot, even in the heaviest rains, despite numerous requests to toss it on the porch), far cheaper and far more timely (my Sunday Chronicle often doesn't arrive until after I've fed and caffeinated myself and gone through the Times.)

I would disregard these inconveniences for my "local" papers - because, truly, the delivery annoyances of newspapering are much the same today as they've always been - if only the newsrooms delivered on their promise of interesting local news. But they don't.

As I said the other day [Read: Big News, Big Coverage, Big Opportunity], for all those papers that Are Not The Times, local news is the franchise, produced both for print and for electronic distribution. It is an area in which each newspaper can create a unique journalistic mix that, at minimum, separates the paper from the glut of available media and, at best, appeals to an audience looking for news that comes with guidance, context, interpretation and the ability for interaction.

Unfortunately, most newspapers fail to meet one or both of the standards needed to create a signature mix - enough local information to draw the attention of a multiplicity of readers or fewer stories that are sophisticated enough, human enough or simply understandable enough to attract readers who already have heard the basic news and need to be enticed further. In short, they either lack quantity, quality or both.

Naturally, most newspaper editors will disagree with what I just said. They will rebut with claims of numerous local stories, enterprise projects and staffing that, while too-often these days reduced, is devoted primarily to local news. Fair enough. Many newspapers produce hundreds if not more of column inches of local copy every week, but what is the subject matter of all this ink and pixels? In most regional and smaller newspapers, two-thirds to three-quarters of all local, non-sports stories are about institutions (government), crime (courts and cops) and reports (more institutions.) Count them in your own paper. And, as the papers get smaller, these stories become increasingly eye-glazing, devolving into either recitations of agendas or, worse, poorly executed attempts to mimic the more difficult forms of journalism (narrative, analysis, columns) practiced with excellence by only the best papers.

The Readership Institute has beat this drum for years, pointing out that the routine grist of daily journalism - crime, government, traditional newswriting - is a turnoff not only for younger readers, but for the newspaper's aging audience as well. [Read: Readership: Survival Lessons for the Future from Minneapolis.]

So why are newspapers not attempting to reinvent local news? (Some are, such as the one led by this man.) Why are newspaper editors who were forced by the boardroom to cut staff in the newsroom simply rearranging the deck chairs? It is not the chairs that are the problem. It is the boat - and that's sinking. A friend of mine who works for a larger newspaper just emerging from a round a job losses read me the "openings" posted by the management - suburban court reporter, assistant suburban bureau chief, planning, etc., etc., etc. These are part of the same beat structure that has existed in newsrooms for decades, a structure that is institutionally oriented, one designed to cover news from the point of view of the government instead of the point of view of the governed and one that is taken for granted as the right way to do newspaper journalism budget year after budget year. This orientation makes it nigh on impossible to provide readers with the one thing the Readership Institute finds resonates most with the public - an experience. They want reading the news to give them an experience - make them smarter, make them feel safer, make them shudder, shake or other twinge with human emotion. You won't find these characteristics in the halls of government.

Don't misunderstand. Journalists must cover government and journalists must cover crime - but officials and bureaucrats and cops and criminals aren't our audience; the public, the victims, the ordinary people are the audience. Why in this time of journalistic crisis are newsroom managers rebuilding shattered newsrooms in the very forms that contribute to their breakdown? Why are they not questioning core assumptions about what is "news" and how should it be presented? Why is their No. 1 priority for 2006, when more than 2,000 newspaper jobs were lost in 2005, not establishing a whole new set of priorities? Why are they not zero-basing their budgets and their thinking and asking: If I could rebuild this newspaper from scratch, what would I change? Would I have the same beats, the same staffing allocations, the same editors? (Answer: Of course not!)

Too harsh? Let's look at this past Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle (disclosure: I have numerous former colleagues working there). The Chronicle, even after several months of painful cuts and buyouts, has 400 journalists on staff. It's front page is a telling display of the paper's priorities about deploying those editors, reporters and photographers: Two staff-written stories about the coming Samuel Alito hearings, a Washington Post story on Tom DeLay, a staff (stringer?) story from Jerusalem on Ariel Sharon, a staff story on the Bush administration's spying on private citizens and a staff progress report on the issues facing the San Francisco mayor.

In essence, the Chronicle had one local story on A-1. One. And that story was about government. The only non-tease art were three mugshots of white men. No stories that reflect regional issues. No stories that depict the everyday lives of everyday people. Nothing that reflects the region's diversity. Nothing fun.

On to the "local" section: Two columns, one about a woman arrested for carrying a gun; another about a sculpture vandalized in a wealthy neighborhood; a spot story about a cop killed in shootout 40 miles south of San Francisco; a feature about a Hurricane Katrina victim returning home. Pretty bland stuff. A final story reported on living in the "flood zone" and "low-lying areas" (although the one of the file cover pictures was a car caught in an upland mudslide, not a flood) and had four paragraphs out of 1,500 words about my county, Marin.

The rest of the eight-page local section contained jumps, a lengthy story on the state budget (labeled "analysis" but in fact a series of quotes from politicians and bureaucrats), another political story from the suburbs and - drum roll, please - four full pages of paid obituaries. Talk about harvesting your readers for revenue!

There is nothing unique, nothing special about this Sunday's edition of the Chronicle. The New York Times has all the same national/international news and more. (In fact, the Chronicle's 16-page A section contained eight stories from the N.Y. Times, the L.A. Times or the Washington Post.) The Marin newspaper, as it should, had much more on the flooding. The Chron was outdone on both ends of the news scale.

Here's my point: Why is the Chronicle (and other similar-sized newspapers) wasting costly staff salaries and yards of newsprint replicating national stories it has already purchased from the Times/Post news services and the wires? Why is it equally wasting costly staff salaries and yards of newsprint writing regional stories better done more local papers?

Answer: Because that's what it's always done, that's what the newsroom value system produces. Traditional newsroom values place a cachet on a bylined national story. Traditional newsroom values compel editors to assign lengthy regional roundups that cast a wide, but thin net. Traditional newsroom values dictate sterile language and chunky design that hides the diamonds in even the most polished pieces of journalistic coal. (Point: The Chron A-1 had six stores, each showing about 3 inches of type - not enough to draw anyone in to the piece regardless of its strengths.)

A newspaper trying to rebuild for the future must discard these values and develop a new set unique to its own condition (resources) and its own community (issues, demographics). From these values will come new priorities, new forms of local news, new beats and new voices in the paper - from those formerly known as the audience. (Thank you, Prof. Rosen). Perhaps there will also come partnerships between the larger regional papers and the smaller local ones and with the online services like Flickr (where flood pictures were plentiful) - shared content, cross promotion, joint online presence and revenue sharing. In a networked world, newspapers continue to stand sadly alone.

Local news is the franchise for most newspapers - in print and online. But offering more local news cooked from the same tired recipes is like opening a restaurant that advertises: Bad food, but a lot of it!

News managers need to fundamentally rethink how they use their newsroom resources. They're not going to get more of them. Scrap the staff-written national stories. Don't send to non-local-franchise sporting events. Use wires for movie reviews (add local from readers). Redirect these resources to investigations, better writers and stronger designers. Develop more resources through editorial entrepreneurship with local writers, bloggers, artists and photographers - aka talented citizens.

There is so much that can be done, so much that is different from what as been done for so long. [Read: Explode the Newsroom: Six Ways to Rebuild the System.] Just because the suburban planning writer took the buyout doesn't mean you have to replace him or her.

Think different. Be different. Give me something different for my $7.75.

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Posted by Tim Porter at January 9, 2006 03:32 PM

Tim - what is someone ONLY reads the Chron? They'll presumably want their dose of national, international, and local news in one. Not everyone reads three papers.

Posted by: Ben Casnocha on January 9, 2006 06:15 PM

I suggest reading Jared Diamond's "Collapse." In it Diamond describes societies in decline facing mounting adversities which inspire ever greater determination to hang on to the the values that once allowed them to succeed.

When the environment changes, a misplaced devotion to how things have always been done blurs their vision and eventually destroys them.

In the Greenland settlement the white people of Europe despised the native peoples and refused to adopt their ways. Those who did not escape back to Europe died of disease, starvation or freezing cold. The native people got along fine as they had for centuries.

Those who can adapt, survive. Those who can't become extinct. Most natural thing in the world, I suppose, though it is a bit troubling to be in the employ of one of those doomed enterprises.

Posted by: tom on January 9, 2006 10:06 PM

Tim, I think you are on target, but maybe not radical enough. I think mid-sized and smaller papers should flat out cancel their AP subscription (everybody read it all on line yesterday anyway), and instead fill the paper with local stuff. Too often I see a local story or two on page one, then filler AP crud throughout the rest of the pages. Also, I think interesting stuff *can* be found in the halls of government. My complaint is that I have three (three!) local papers and none of them covers my local city council or school board regularly. But when presented with wit and skill and a concern for the readers, local government news can be very interesting. It just has to be played right; in depth, with explanations of the subtle aspects, and information on how it affect the readers.

Posted by: Brad H on January 9, 2006 10:27 PM

Even if they only read the Chron, they also watch the news on television or get their national headlines online. I don't think a soul exists any more that finds a single newspaper as their sole source of news.

As for the local coverage, it comes down to prioritizing. Sure, cover things in a wide, thin net ... but make sure that that's not your only collection system. You also need to have a deep bucket of coverage that collects from a confined, specific area. A newspaper, no matter how hard it tries, cannot be everything to everyone. Pick your area. Pick your niche. Pick an identity.

And then run with it.

Posted by: Chris Vannoy on January 10, 2006 01:03 AM

There are souls who still don't get their headlines online. My parents as two examples. However, more people than ever are finding their news from multiple sources (especially the internet). A recent media study suggested that a large migration to internet news has begun in the over-55 age group (my parents are early 70s) who typically are slow to embrace new technology or non-traditional media.

The problem for newspapers is that their form of thick-casting (a 5-pound package that has only an ounce or two of interest to many people) doesn't work in the internet age. Choice of sources, availability of multimedia, and the potential for new depth or perspectives are just some of the advantages available via the online world. Tim is right, if I want national/international news I can get it from BBC, NPR, CNN and a host of other sources (including AP). Through those and many others I can find as much depth and perspective as I want. Plus, online I can quickly seek out that variety through Google and the like rather than having to slowly paw through a pile of dirty paper that may be sodden from sitting in my driveway. What's more, if I can find what I want in my local rag, it will often be just an abridged reguritation of those other sources because of limitations of newshole. And many newspaper online offerings are little different than their little-of-everything-lot-of-nothing print cousins. They don't take real advantage of the many new opportunities afforded by the internet as a medium for storing, transmitting and re-envisioning the news. A lot of US newspapers are simply trying to paste their 11x21 broadsheets on people's 19-inch monitors.

Newspapers must find ways to deliver unique, compelling information to readers. They must find new ways to leverage their core strengths (trained newsgathers, credibility, relationship with readers & advertisers, etc.) before they loose them all. They must adapt to keep the eyeballs that advertisers are chasing. In the multicast world it isn't entirely clear where those eyeballs are going, but they are (in ever increasing numbers) not on newsprint.

The challenge for newspapers today is to prepare now for a future where no one will only read The Chron (or whatever is the local or regional newspaper covering any given area). If they don't they won't all die, but the vast majority will become considerably less relevant.

Posted by: David Hawkins on January 10, 2006 07:24 PM

You clearly laid out what you'd do with the Chronicle, but what are your thoughts on redeploying newsroom resources at smaller papers? We don't have people writing movie reviews or national stories.

Posted by: Reid Magney on January 11, 2006 10:43 AM

I've been meaning to write a long-form blog-post in response to this thought-provoking essay for two days now. Instead, here's a comment:

While I agree with the idea that rote institutional coverage is death at any level, the economics of the "local-local-local" solution for mid-sized metros and even regional papers point in the wrong direction for print editions, because production and delivery costs can go up even as the size of the audience gets smaller.

This reversal-of-scale problem can be solved easily on the web, though, where every inclusion of one news item doesn't mean excluding something else. When it comes to local coverage, the web lets me see only the stuff that affects what I consider to be my community (which isn't JUST geographical) and skip all the boring stuff from the neighboring bedroom community (which print editors must weigh competitively and try to treat fairly). Instead of averaging interests, like print editors must, the web lets us chase passions. And that's where every good writer wants to be -- right in the groove with intensely interested readers.

I think these changes on the web -- using bloggy tools and sensibilities to get right down to the street level in coverage, without having to worry about offending or boring neighboring communities or "competing" interests -- are the changes that will ultimately reinvigorate the print edition.

The future of mid-sized metro newspapers lies in understanding a concept that newspaper designer Janet Edens has been preaching for years: The goal isn't local news, but news of local interest.

When we say that the strength of newspapers is local news, we're confusing information infrastructure with the medium itself. Local newspapers have the staff to cover local news, but the medium that is best suited to the job is electronic, online, web-based.

The strength of printed media is ease of use. No, you may not read everything in the bundle, but newspapers are designed to be scanned. They give you a lot of information in a short period of time, and they offer you the opportunity to read deeper. They're much easier to read than a cycling, pulsing screen, and you know all the stuff about portability, etc., etc.

Once we become news organizations that publish newspapers as part of our operations, our newspapers will get better. Our subject matter will improve. Our editors will understand their roles more clearly.

But until then, we'll struggle. Trying to improve local news with newsprint is like trying to insert a Phillips Head screw with a hammer.

Posted by: dan conover on January 11, 2006 03:21 PM

Thank you for this post. Lots of us high school newspaper advisers are doing just what you recommend -- our reporters and editors are covering their local communities with energy and commitment. They're learning how to do it with insight and depth, too.

My editors will be reading this post as a reminder of what their good local newspaper should be.

Posted by: Jeri McFadden on January 11, 2006 03:26 PM

Right on the money, Tim. I have a different take on content analysis that complements yours: commodity news vs. value-added news. Commodity news is -- like all commodities -- widely available and cheap or even free. It is 50-70% percent of the newshole of every newspaper I've measured (and I've measured a bunch of them). Value-added news can be produced only through old-fashioned shoe leather reporting -- usually at the local level, but not always. It's a lucky reader who gets more than 30% news of value for her money.

The sad thing about all this is that neither my pica pole nor the Readership Institute's finds much difference between big regional newspapers and small community dailies. The depressing content mix is about the same everywhere. I had always hoped otherwise -- until I did as you suggest and started counting.

Posted by: Mike Phillips on January 12, 2006 11:38 AM
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