January 20, 2006

The Content Gap

The need to reinvent local news, to produce a local report weighted in favor of community interest, to write about government institutions from the point of view of the governed and not the governing, becomes even more clear when you examine the gap between the what readers think is important and what journalists think is important.

I've pointed out multiple times that most regional and "local" newspapers are filled with anything but local news [Read: The Sunday Not-So-Funnies and Local News: Who is Going to Write for Citizen Me?] and that most local news in most newspapers focuses on institutions and crime.

Mike Phillips, the former editorial development director for Scripps Newspapers, goes a step further and defines the content gap - the chasm between the interests of the public and of journalist. He left the following comment on my post about newspaper reinvention and on Jeff Jarvis' excellent roadmap for deconstructing a newspaper. Phillips wrote (emphasis added):

"I've just retired from one of the larger media companies, but I spent the last couple of years trying to get 21 newspapers to do much of what you're proposing.

"To those who disagree with you, here's some data to chew on: Only 30-35% of the newshole in American newspapers (all sizes) is local. Some 50-70% is commodity news - usually wire but not always, and always information that is readily available elsewhere for free. From proprietary research that I know well: The subjects that are most important to most Americans are health, kids/schools, family issues, community/local and religion/spirituality. Except for general community/local, less than 2% of newshole is the typical allotment for each of those subjects. And oh, by the way, the high-interest audience for sports is only about 25%.

"Conclusion: The fundamental challenge for newspapers is not print-to-web migration (although that's an important operational strategy). It's filling print and digital news products with relevant content. And that simply isn't happening."

Content is the easiest part of the newspaper business to control. Stories and photographs flow from where the bodies are put. Assign the best and most aggressive reporters to covering government, and your newspaper becomes filled with government news. Make dozens of beat calls to police agencies every week and crime stories fill the news columns. Treat family, community and religion issues as fodder for features or weekly sections written by stringers, and these stories rarely make Page 1.

There is so much these days beyond the control of newspapers - ad shifts, editorial budgets, new media usage. Journalists can't change any of that. But they can control what goes in the paper, where it goes and how much of it there is. That's all newsroom.

Measure the news in your paper. What are the topics? Who are the sources? How are you using your two most precious resources: Staff and news hole? Does the newspaper reflect the community (not just ethnically, but in issues, interests and priorities?) And if not - what are you going to do about it?

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Posted by Tim Porter at January 20, 2006 07:06 AM

A suggestion: put a link like "Read the whole posting" in the body of your RSS feed. Without it, some viewers will assume that the RSS feed contents is your whole posting and not bother visiting the blog itself.

Posted by: Terry Steichen on January 22, 2006 04:03 AM
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