Category Archives: Newsrooms

Editorials: Headed for extinction?

Powerful local advocacy is essential to your news brand

20170322_120803As the relentless decline in ad revenues empties more and more newsroom desks, there’s been a little-noted side effect: Waning commitment to locally written editorials.

Nobody seems to be noticing, and that’s a shame. In this and probably a future post, I intend to make the case for strong local opinion-writing as a key element of community journalism.

In the local media business, we like to think that our brand has immense value. I believe the thoughtfulness and impact of our editorials plays a huge part in creating that value.

Terabytes of commentary already have been written about the loss of reporting positions. The fear is that civic coverage and watchdog reporting are withering away, leaving communities vulnerable to abuses by unmonitored bureaucrats, politicians and corporations.

Conscience and advocacy

Just as important, in my view, is the loss of outspoken civic conscience and advocacy from editorial pages.

In the ideal world, good reporting is the first step, and powerful commentary based on those facts is the second step.

In the real world, however, penetrating reporting on crucial community issues is far too rare at most newspapers, and getting more so. And good editorial-writing derived from this kind of coverage is even more endangered.

Among U.S. newspaper companies, editorial-writing has too often been seen as an obligatory side dish, like comics and the advice column. The view is that people expect ’em, so we gotta get somebody to write ’em at the lowest possible cost.

In a hilarious column 30 years ago or more, purporting to explain what newspapers are all about, Dave Berry parodied this view by defining editorial writers as people who have two or three strong opinions every day, and are paid to write about them.

Learning the hard way

My experience as an editorial writer was different.

It started in my first week as a full-time beat reporter at my family’s newspaper, fresh out of journalism school. My dad informed me that — in addition to covering communities and school districts — I would be writing one editorial a week.

I was indignant. I knew nothing about editorials, had learned nothing about them in J school, and had no interest in learning about them then.

Just as my father intended, the assignment gradually taught me the importance and the value of good editorial-writing.

As a reporter, I learned the workings of the community. As an editorial writer, I learned to view the community with a very wide scope, with a genuine dedication to getting at the things that would make it a better place to live, work and raise a family.

I came to understand that the most important editorials we could write were those that unraveled community issues with a combination of facts and logic borne of a desire to raise the common good.

At most papers, editorial writers love to spin out erudite-sounding essays or irate polemics about the latest controversies in Washington. I wrote local editorials because that was what I knew, and because that’s what could make a difference in our community.

Local comment, local impact

Today, small-town editorials on national or international topics are all but useless. Readers have fingertip access to vast amounts of commentary by brilliant and deeply knowledgeable thinkers around the world. What can a small- or medium-market editorial pundit add that hasn’t already been said?

But on local subjects, a local editorial writer can make huge contributions. At my family’s newspaper, I learned from my father to step back from the minutiae of daily local coverage and scan the local scene for what was missing, what wasn’t working, what was needed. That drove our editorial commentary.

I’m not talking about local editorials that are lightweight “attaboys” or diatribes stating what’s already obvious to everybody, although those have their place. I’m talking about editorials that unpack difficult issues and provide strong thought leadership where it’s needed.

As I gained experience, I developed an editorial style that strove to get every reader from the opening paragraph all the way to a strongly stated conclusion.

I would start by framing the issue in terms just about everyone could agree on. Then I would add facts and their interpretations in a carefully chosen linear sequence. I would take readers, step by logical step, to a conclusion they might have rejected if I had beaten them over the head with it at the top.

Be transparent and consistent about it

At our paper, to put our editorial mission out front, we produced an “Editorial Platform” each year. It consisted of seven to 10 “planks,” or important community issues we intended to advocate. For each plank, we would state what we saw as the needed progress for the year.

The subjects varied from year to year, such as infrastructure needs, quality of education, transportation, parks, intergovernmental disputes, health care, transportation, attracting employers and so on.

The Platform ran every Friday at the foot of the editorial columns, often underneath editorials on that week’s advances or failures on one or more of the editorial planks.

We would end the year with an editorial assessing progress, or lack of it, on each plank. And the following week, when we introduced the new year’s Platform, some planks would be dropped, some added and some modified.

This exercise sharpened our sense of what issues needed special coverage during the year, and of where our coverage of routine governmental decision-making needed to go deeper.

Hearts beating for the community

Of course, our paper was a single, stand-alone, family-owned operation. My grandfather had begun the sense of editorial responsibility to the community, my father followed and developed it, and I took it still further.

We lived in the community we covered, and we thought about its progress in years and decades, not just months or quarters.

Back then, I often wondered how chain-owned newspapers could generate the same kind of deep commitment to community health and long-term progress. I still do.

In privately held newspaper groups, owners often live hundreds or thousands of miles away. In publicly held newspaper groups, ownership is dispersed among thousands of distant shareholders.

In those cases, whose hearts beat every day for the health and future of the single community? It falls to local publishers and local editors, but the resources are dwindling steadily, and corporate commitment to strong editorial voices is diminishing.

Ownership of U.S. newspapers is increasingly concentrated under financially-driven corporations, and newsrooms are being hollowed out more and more under pressure of declining revenues.

I believe that spirited, fact-based advocacy of crucial community changes and outcomes is an essential element in keeping a local audience engaged with local journalism. Reporting alone — and most of it routine — is not enough.

If there’s a business model to support a strong, community-centered editorial voice, we need it, and we need it right now.

Coming soon: Ideas on what the business models might be.

Power structure: Another “Big-J” project for strapped newsrooms

Last time I blogged about a fairly simple but powerful “Big J” journalism project we did years ago in my hometown, shaking up the judicial system in a very positive way.

Here’s another “Big J” project we did back then. It can be done in any community, and it will reveal very interesting things about who has and wields power in the community. Read further to learn how, and to see clippings of the stories we produced.

It started in 1992, when I was editor of my family’s newspaper in Monroe, Mich. At the time, I was doing some serious thinking about the local power structure. Read the rest of this entry

“Big-J” journalism projects for resource-strapped newsrooms — Part I

Justice sign on a Law Courts building

It’s an article of faith in the local media business: High-quality content is our trump card in the high-stakes business of attracting and monetizing digital audiences.

But how much of that high-quality content do we really produce? And how much of it really has the huge audience pulling-power we need?

It’s the same answer for both questions: Not nearly enough. Read the rest of this entry

Rethinking the mission and purpose of local reporting

How do you define the mission and purpose of local reporting?

Cover the news? Hold institutions accountable? Maintain a well-informed citizenry? Hold up a mirror to the community? “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?”

Search around the Web for statements of journalism’s purpose and you’ll find all of the above, and more like them.

And there’s a lot of anxiety these days about the present and future of this mission. With local advertising and circulation revenues spiraling steadily downward, and with newsrooms shrinking along a parallel line, two things are evident. Whatever the mission of local reporting is:

  1. A lot less of it is happening now.
  2. Even less will be happening in the future.

In many places in this business, the central question these days is: How can we drive revenue from new sources, so we can keep supporting the functions of journalism that are critical to a free society?

To an extent, I buy that. But there’s also something seriously misguided about it. Read the rest of this entry

The hardest part of saving news: Changing the definition

Lots of people understand that the traditional business model around news is breaking down. Far fewer realize it’s not just the business part — advertising — that’s broken. It’s also news itself.

Why is this so hard to understand?

A planet full of people is going from a daily diet of a newspaper and a couple of news broadcasts to constant access to almost everything there is to know. Inevitably, this is causing people today to want and expect different things from their time spent on content than people did 20 or 50 years ago.

But what we produce as news has hardly changed. Read the rest of this entry

Millennials, news and the Borneo effect

It’s the Year of the Millennials, according to Pew. In 2015, at ages 18 to 34, they will surpass Baby Boomers in the U.S. to become the largest living generation. And a major new report by the Media Insight Project, just released at the NAA mediaXchange, sheds a lot of new light on their consumption of news.

CoverThe report (pdf, html) emphasizes the bright side, stressing the finding that most Millennials do value news and consume it regularly. But the most worrisome finding for newspaper companies is that they rarely go to traditional news providers to get it. We are far back in the loop, when we’re in it at all. Read the rest of this entry

How to change behavior in your disrupted organization

Cropped handsWhen a company or industry is beset by massive disruption — as the traditional media have been for more than a decade now — it creates two massive challenges:

  1. Figuring out how the business has to change.
  2. Changing behaviors in the organization to get the new things done.

As most people in the newspaper industry can testify, both of these are difficult and relentless. There’s no “one and done” in a disruption as massive as the digital revolution.

And, unfortunately, success at No. 1 is no guarantee of success at No. 2.

Over last three years, I’ve blogged frequently about No. 1. This time let’s look at No. 2. Read the rest of this entry

Media business model: Are you running the Scotch Tape store?

If you’re old enough to remember Saturday Night Live in its glory days, maybe you remember the hilarious sketches set in the Scotch Tape store at the old mall.

The bit was centered on, and got its laughs from, a ridiculously narrow business model centered on a single product, sold in a retail location that was no longer the cool place to be. (I’d love to link to a clip here, but I couldn’t find one. NBC must be closely guarding its copyright.)

Those sketches came to mind this week as I was trying to think of a metaphor for the newspaper business and its relentless concentration on news. News continues to be our industry’s central purpose and the heart of its business model for attracting audiences.

I laughed out loud when it occurred to me that we might be well on the way to becoming the Scotch Tape store, or “Scotch Boutique,” as they called it. But the idea is as painful as it is funny. Read the rest of this entry

Why the definition of news must change in the digital age

Nothing is more deeply ingrained in the newspaper industry than the definition of news. It’s the foundation of what we do, the “product” we use to attract and serve consumer audiences, and the platform on which we sell most of our advertising.

Now the definition desperately needs fundamental change, as I’ll document below. If we hope to be relevant and engaging to the people in our markets, we need to start over, beginning with a fresh answer to the question, “What is news?” Read the rest of this entry

Four huge takeaways from Borrell’s “The Future of Legacy Media”

When your industry is undergoing massive disruption, getting a glimpse of the future is priceless. The more you know about where things are going, the smarter you can be about what to do right now.

For that reason, the report released earlier this month by Borrell Associates — “The Future of Legacy Media” — should be required reading for everyone responsible for the health and sustainability of any legacy media business in the United States and Canada. Read the rest of this entry