Recommendations for the Local Newspaper

For more of my commentary on life in Richmond, Indiana check out RichmondMatters.com.

Jason Truitt at the Richmond Palladium-Item has requested input from the paper's readers on its current strategic planning conversations, saying "we want to do a better news operation in 2010."  As I've done in the past, I'd like to try to answer some of Jason's specific questions here, and while they're somewhat particular to our community, my recommendations might be useful for other papers too:

1. Watchdog journalism involves writing stories that hold public officials accountable for their actions or stories that help to right wrongs in the community, for example. In what ways could we improve in this area?

The Palladium-Item is to be commended for its consistent presence at government and institutional meetings, no matter how boring or routine they are.  That said, the paper often seems to be getting its stories out the door about important or controversial issues just as those items are reaching some sort of final decision point.

At some level I'm sure this is what many decision makers and news makers would prefer - their jobs are easier when there's less time for the public to be outraged before it's "too late."  And it's true that it's still the responsibility of the citizenry to make itself aware of what issues are before, say, Common Council, and not depend entirely on the paper to note items of possible interest.  But I would be pleased to see the Palladium-Item try to maintain even more context on community issues that are under discussion, before they've reached a point of ostensible "no return."

On the other side of the matter, there's the issue of accountability once a wrong or disservice has been committed.  The general "media strategy" practiced by most public figures in this community when they're involved in something controversial is "wait a few days and everyone will have moved on to something else." They're generally right that the collective memory of the community is subject to manipulation and distraction - hey, what's that shiny thing over THERE....oh wait, sorry - and so we do need the paper to look back at how decisions were made and hold the decision-makers accountable.  It can be tough sometimes when the mindset of the reporter understandably becomes "how many more stories can I do about disingenuous plotting by council members to de-fund the Human Rights Commission, we already DID that one?"   But know that nonetheless, I think there's a real thirst in this town for follow-up and perspective on those kinds of things, because they help us remember what we did wrong, and how we can do better next time.

And when election time rolls around, don't just print the candidates` answers to questionnaires and their prepared responses at a debate - show us their voting record, their public statements (or noticeable lack thereof) about important issues, their actual contributions to the community (instead of their provided list of affiliations).  Tell us their story in a way that fits into the larger narrative of the community, and don't take their word for it.

2. The Sunday edition of the Palladium-Item has, by far, our biggest single-day circulation. Past feedback tell us its the day our readers have the most time to spend with the paper. It's also an important day to our advertisers because of the bigger audience it enjoys. What could we do to make that edition special for you?

When I sit down to read the Sunday paper, I don't want to just read articles, I want to have an experience.  Yes, I want it to be like reading the New York Times.  I want there to be options, different subject mater, formats and voices.  I want to be challenged and amused and provoked, and then I want to sit back and think about that, and then I want to move on to another article or section and do it all over again.

The current experience of reading the Palladium-Item on Sunday is about a 10-15 minute process on average, and some of that is getting all of the advertising circulars separated out and thrown away so I can tell how much "real" content is left.  That's not even enough time to get me through a cup of coffee and breakfast, let alone a lazy Sunday morning.

Okay, I know that it's unlikely the Pal-Item is going to be able to ramp up content production to NYT Sunday levels.  And I know that short of a rich uncle depositing some bags of money in your laps, you're physically limited by the number of staff you can afford to have working on that edition.  But if you have resources to expend on making the Sunday edition "special," please make sure you focus on expanding your reporting and news analysis - that would feel very special to me.

3. We want our Web site to be viewed as a primary source for breaking news in our area. How can we make that happen? What would that look like on pal-item.com?

I'll tell you exactly what it looks like: collaboration with other sources of local news to display their headlines and links to their stories on your site.  Yes, I really said that and no, I'm not kidding.  With your current staff resources, you can't expect to always be the first news organization to break a story, and so you have to position yourself to still be the place where people come to read about breaking news, even if it's not your content. If they know that if they go to Kicks96/WHON and G101.3/WKBV and Twitter and the EDC site and the Chamber site and WayNet.org and so on to find stories and information you don't have yet, then pal-item.com will always just be one stop along the way for most users, not a primary source.  You need critical mass.

The nice thing is that the pieces are all almost in place for this to happen.  If you can collaborate with other news reporting / news breaking entities to insure that RSS feeds are readily available, you can build a "breaking news portal" with little technical effort.  Yes, they might build their own breaking news portal too, but that's okay.  Really, trust me.

Also, crowdsource it.  Find trusted local readers (even if they have conflicts of interest and affiliations and biases) and give them the power to post information directly on your breaking news pages (or via their own RSS feeds, Twitter streams, etc).  Don't moderate it, don't filter it, or if you do, let other readers do the filtering and moderating along with you.  Yes I really said that, no I'm not kidding.

4. Traditionally, newspapers have had a leadership role in their communities, and that's something we would like to continue here. How would you suggest we take a greater role in that?

As I think you and your colleagues know, being in a true leadership role is not something you can necessarily choose or create, it's something that's earned over time by consistent acts that bring something to the community with integrity and perspective.  The paper has one of the loudest voices in town when it comes to shaping the thoughts and conversations of our everyday lives.  If I were running the Pal-Item, I would ask every day, "does our news product and the work of our staff use our loud voice in a way that builds up the community, informs and challenges our readers with new and different perspectives they're not getting elsewhere, and helps create or promote a vision for a sustainable, enjoyable future that can be enjoyed by all?"  If there are times when the answer is "no," make changes and move on.  If there are times when the answer is "yes," then you're serving in an important leadership role, keep it up.

I know the values implied in this question are very different from the traditional journalistic imperatives that shaped a newspaper's role in a town for so long, but times they are a changin`.

5. What can we do to improve customer service?

I've never had a negative customer service experience with the Palladium-Item.  That said, one weird thing you could resolve is the way you ask people to submit information or letters to you through your website.  There's the filling out of a form and the cramming of text into a small text box, which is totally inconvenient if you're submitting a press release that's already been prepared as a PDF or Word DOC.  It's understood that the Pal-Item staff use e-mail (and sometimes you print their addresses in the paper), so why not provide direct e-mail as an alternative to the weird form?

Also, take the lead in getting this community to use QR Codes.  Please? Thanks.

...

Thanks to Jason for asking for reader/public input on the paper's operations and future.  If you have your own thoughts on what the local paper needs to do to stay relevant, engaging, and, ahem, solvent, feel free to share here or on Jason's blog post.

3 thoughts on “Recommendations for the Local Newspaper

  1. One thing I've noticed about the PI is that the advertisements on both the paper-version AND the website are just ridiculous. The signal:noise ratio is prohibitively high.

    I wouldn't mind paying a few bucks for a newspaper that had far fewer ads, particularly if there was more information.

    Re: Crowdsourcing
    We've been experimenting with that up at IU East -- One way this could be implemented is to simply provide readers with a way to write articles and submit them -- the editorial staff will pick the strong ones. There are a lot of idiots that read the PI (go check out the forums if you don't believe me -- and I don't use that term lightly), and this would at least provide a level of moderation.

    Hard to say how they would monetize things without doing ad revenue, but I don't even visit their website anymore simply because the ads are too annoying. (They keep popping up in front of what I'm trying to read). When I have to actively scan the page just to find where the content or navigation is, that's a serious usability concern.

  2. "we want to do a better news operation in 2010."

    Ugh. And to think I used to oversee the copy desk at the P-I. Maybe I shouldn't spend so much time reading our forums. I think the bad habits displayed there might be rubbing off on me.

    Thanks, Chris (and Aaron), for sharing your thoughts. I'll definitely bring these up as we continue our discussions over the next few weeks.

  3. Hello Chris,

    Thanks for putting so much thought into this – I think you’ve done a great job of outlining some of the improvements that could be made to the paper. Since you opened your forum space up, I’ll add my two cents.

    I’m going to focus my comments on Jason’s 4th question, but I think they may have spillover implications for some of the others.

    For me, the most important issue facing the Pal-Item is to maintain a strong local emphasis. There may have been a time when newspapers were seen as the primary source for local, state, national, and international news, but I think that time has passed. The average person is inundated with news from papers both in print and online, radio, network and cable tv, and a host of internet sites. Most of this is national and international news. That suggests that a local paper devoting a great deal of print space to AP stories and syndicated columns could quickly become redundant and irrelevant. The only comparative advantage a local paper has is in local coverage. What can I find in the Pal-Item that I can’t access from the Indy Star, the Star Press, or even Yahoo News for that matter?

    On the news side, this means simply reporting on what is going on in our area. This can include watchdog journalism, but it can also include positive profiles of students, residents, businesses, etc. Your comments in your previous post on local news coverage cover a lot of this ground. And none of this is to say that the Pal-Item does not already do much of this – it’s more of an observation that maintaining this focus going forward is crucial.

    I may be biased, but I also think a strong editorial section is vital for a paper. This means favoring local writers over national columnists widely available through other outlets. Now, I think this is an area where the paper has a definite leadership role in the community. A robust culture of local commentary on important issues of the day needs to be fostered. The Pal-Item can do this first by articulating clear positions, even at this risk of offending or alienating some of the readership. The paper should model the content it would like to receive from other contributors.

    If a reader submits a column that merely presents both sides of an issue and concludes with “this is an important issue that deserves more thought,” for instance, it’s easy to see why the paper’s editors would not care to run it. It’s not very interesting to read and is unlikely to inspire others to weigh in with their own viewpoints. The editorial positions of the paper should therefore avoid falling prey to the same temptation. This doesn’t mean that the paper needs to lean one way or the other politically, but that it’s role should be seen as less one of always trying to appear even-handed and more as one of encouraging debate and discussion and creating a space for a lively community forum in print as well as online.

    There’s a leadership role here for the paper to encourage the next generation of readers and writers, as well. What partnership opportunities are there with the high school and college papers in the area? Again, the Pal-Item may already do this to some extent, but I would echo your comments here that the paper could benefit from a truly collaborative network approach, and extend that to student-run papers. Working with students could be a great way to foster a local news and commentary culture here that will build a sustainable base of engaged readership for the Pal-Item’s future.

    In any case, those are my thoughts for what they’re worth. Thanks again for the opportunity to share!

    Matt

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