By Dennis Hetzel, Executive Director

Dennis Hetzel

A recent conference at Ohio State University that I attended was called “The Future of Online Journalism.”  Maybe it surprises you to hear that despite all the gloom and doom about our industry, I came away feeling weirdly optimistic.

I say “weirdly” because the dialogue and presentations were both troubling and promising. No one wants to be in a business that is just surviving. You want to be thriving.  Can our industry thrive again? I was reminded that the newspapers with the best chance to thrive are those that keep sight of Job One: Understanding their communities, covering local news thoroughly and promptly and doing so with spirit, passion and, when necessary, courage.

Readers and advertisers want to be associated with products that do that, whatever the platform.

Sometimes the most depressing information can leave you optimistic as you think about problems as opportunities in disguise.

An absorbing and cautionary tale came from Fiona Morgan, a research associate at the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy at Duke University.  Morgan, a former reporter, talked about her comprehensive research into the information needs of smaller communities.

One of her case studies focused on the working-class town of Siler City, North Carolina. Two nearby metro dailies, Raleigh and Greensboro, used to cover Siler City extensively.  The local weekly she said, is neither aggressive as a news product nor technologically astute.  (For example, the paper still does manual paste-up with matte knives and waxing machines. I invite older readers of this column to explain knives and waxers to the younger folks.) Fifty percent of the local population is Hispanic, but there are no Spanish-speaking journalists anywhere to be found in Siler City.

Due to staffing cutbacks and circulation pullbacks, the daily papers that used to treat Siler City as important have halted regular coverage of most community news. Morgan quantified this statistically and the decline was eye-popping. What coverage that remains is essentially of the “cop check” variety, which likely leads to a skewed perception when the bulk of the coverage of any community involves accidents, arrests and fires.

Does that formula sound familiar? This is the precise emphasis in news coverage that our colleagues in local broadcast journalism have adopted. Beat reporting may be disappearing even faster at television stations than at newspapers. If all newspapers do is the same thing the broadcasters do, what is our purpose?

Morgan probed into interactivity and community conversation. She wondered if “citizen journalists” and engaging, meaningful dialogue helped fill Siler City’s void. The answer is “no.” Community interaction and conversation essentially happens on a local bulletin board that, like most forums and bulletin boards, can best be described in her words: “A kernel of truth surrounded by a patina of bulls—.”

Experiment after experiment around the country has demonstrated that citizen volunteers and opining readers certainly are important but no substitute for what professional journalists ought to be doing.  Anyone who has ever run a local news website knows that it can be a fulltime job to prevent a hardcore few from hijacking the website with abusive, over-the-top rhetoric that discourages regular citizens from getting involved.

“This is a community that cannot talk to itself,” Morgan concluded. “There is a vacuum caused by a lack of timeliness in traditional media. Rumor and partisanship fills the vacuum. … Basic, timely, factual reporting is the biggest unmet need.”

So, how does that make me “weirdly optimistic”?

It takes a sophisticated, passionate perspective to really serve a local community’s information needs on multiple levels, from reporting every property transfer and high school sports score to having the courage to go in depth on local controversies.

And that is what local newspapers are best equipped to do.  No one else enters the game with the resources, knowledge, depth and skill-set that local newspapers have.

* * *

Here are a few other sound bites from the conference, which was sponsored by OSU’s Moritz College of Law and had an overall theme of examining how changes in journalism are impacting democracy for better or worse.

Ava Seave, a partner in the media consulting firm Quantum Media, examined pilot projects with local news websites around the country. As most of us know, there aren’t good models that have been financially successful. Just as micro-local news reaches a relatively small audience that is hard to engage consistently, micro-local advertising is “a tiny base,” she said. The revenue streams aren’t dependable.

Again, I think that’s good news for newspapers, because newspapers are best positioned to appeal on multiple levels. The inherent problem of micro-local news sites is the assumption that people define themselves based on the physical location of their homes. I don’t know about you, but I don’t spend much time every day hunting for information about my subdivision.

Mark Miller, the former editor of The Texas Tribune, one of the Web’s most successful in-depth news sites, pointed out that a reason for the Trib’s success is that most Texans have “an exceptionally strong sense of place.”

The lesson for local newspapers: Geographic-based local websites are going to work best in communities whose members really care about where they live. This describes a lot of Ohio’s small towns and established neighborhoods.

Keynote speaker Steven Waldman, an Internet pioneer and advisor to the FCC, talked about the collapse of investigative reporting and public affairs coverage as news organizations have cut back and changed priorities.  Beat systems are disintegrating, he said, and no one is stepping up to replace the public affairs coverage that traditional media is abandoning.

Waldman was lead author of a widely read report that examined the changing media landscape and community information needs. Did you know that submissions for the Pulitzer Prize for public service are down 40 percent? That’s scary.

“We have more restaurants (news outlets) but they’re all served by the same kitchen (traditional media),” he said. “An abundance of outlets is not the same as an abundance of reporting  … Some of this abundance is a mirage.”

Mayur Patel of the Knight Foundation had my favorite quote of the day, though he said it was not original with him:

“Print is the new vinyl.”

He was referring, of course, to vinyl records, which are reaching new audiences, because of their warmer, retro, listener-friendly sound quality.

That’s an apt description of good newspapers. Vinyl is cool again. And print can be, too, as long as we remember that without great songs that people want to hear, it doesn’t matter how they’re delivered.

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