A newspaper that people will pay for
The decades-long decline in newspaper circulation — from very few people not reading or discussing the daily local newspaper in the 1950’s and 60’s, to only a small fraction of the people bothering to read a paper at all — is, on the one hand, pretty depressing. People are not buying what newspapers are selling. That’s an undeniable fact.
On the other hand, it presents an enormous opportunity to any newspaper that figures out what people are willing to pay for. And that is what we need to work out.
You need to keep in mind that lots of really smart people have put a lot of thought into exactly this issue. If you want people to buy your paper, what does it need to be? What kind of content? What variety of stories? How should it tie print editions to electronic editions? Generate advertising revenue?
Let’s start with the most fundamental issue: what is it about a newspaper that gives it value? It’s clearly not what newspapers commonly provide, people are simply not paying for what the newspaper delivers. You need to think bigger. You need to ask yourself what people need from their newspaper.
Which is this: they need information about things that are likely to have some direct impact on their lives, that they can, should and most likely will need to know to make decisions and take action for the safety and benefit of themselves and the people they care about.
People depend on so many things going right in their world. Employment. Education. Health care. Energy. Basic services, like water and sewage, garbage disposal and recycling. Emergency services, like fire fighting and police. Transportation. And on, and on. Real-world things.
All of them have this much in common: someone has to do something to provide the service or deliver the goods; they need to be properly trained, equipped, organized and (with few exceptions) paid; and they are somehow accountable to someone who is both responsible for the work they do and has authority to make things work. Oh, and everything is related to and depends on everything else, in some way and to some extent.
As I see it, newspapers, as well as local television, radio and web news rooms, provide an essential service if they keep watch over all these things, keep people informed about challenges or difficulties, as well as opportunities and successes in each of them, and provide a forum for people to discuss all of them intelligently, using information about each that the news gathers and reports.
Also as I see it, people don’t bother reading or watching the news in general because it doesn’t actually meet this need, at least not in any practical way. A car crash. A house fire. A shooting. Political scandal. Sports and movie reviews. Notes from a city counsel meeting. Whatever. Random events. Whatever happened to happen in the most recent news cycle. Or whatever happens to fill a column if nothing has happened. Factoids without context, telling the reader little beyond the facts of the event itself other than maybe some indication of how you’re supposed to feel about it. You read these out of curiosity, maybe, or because it happens to touch a nerve. Or as a distraction,
But picture this: instead of the random story about a car crash (which is only in the news if someone died or it’s otherwise a slow news day), an analysis of accidents throughout the region in the last year or two, locations that appear dangerous because of the number and nature of accidents; things that contribute specifically to accidents in the region, whether substance impairment, time of day, condition of vehicles, pedestrian inattention, whatever. Things that are concrete and specific to this region and the people who live here. Things they may be able to do something about.
This is what the news should be. Information people need about the world they live in, information that is thorough, meaningful, useful, relevant, current and timely. Information providing an awareness of what needs people’s attention, and what doesn’t — and for good reason either way. Information people can use to think carefully about the need for action, to consider a range of things to do, to evaluate and weigh likely opportunities and risks, direct and indirect effects. Information that people can count on when they need it, rely on when they have it, and depend on when they have questions, uncertainties or doubts.
And the newspaper needs to be the mind of the community, where people sort out their thoughts, share ideas, consider the possible, make decisions and reflect on what they have done as a community.
In order to do this, local newsrooms can and should find out who, if anyone, may already be gathering this information — perhaps the police, perhaps the highway department. If no one is, well, that’s information people should know! Newsrooms can and should develop their own files on accidents, review and analyse them, looking for anything that might help people find patterns or make sense of the facts — perhaps using faculty at local colleges and universities to assist. And they can and should track what people are doing or planning to do to improve the situation, whether government leaders making funds available for one thing or another or residents changing how they drive, what they drive, where they drive, and so on.
Now, if the newspaper is writing stories about the state of the roads, the way the roads are used, how people are driving, and so on, I’m getting something I can use to see things that likely have a direct impact on my life and the lives of the people I care about, and what, if anything, is going on to make the roads safer and better.
If you’re running a local newspaper, you need to think of your audience as every member of your community, and think of them as leaders and thinkers, as senior decision makers, who require from you all the information they need to understand their situation. They will appreciate this service, and their appreciation will show in your circulation numbers.
There is a lot that flows from this evolved approach to running a newspaper, and we will go over many, many aspects in detail. These aspects include ways a region’s newsrooms can cooperate in creating and maintaining a common community picture; use of web sites and print editions to provide periodic general overviews of the community; dealing with information that may be complex, confusing, contradictory, subjective, and constantly changing; and, critically, generating healthy advertising and sales revenues. We’ll also look at journalistic ethics, relationships with sources of information, dealing with uncertainty and open questions, and keeping above and outside conflicts and controversies that must in the end be resolved by the public we serve.
We’ll also take closer looks at a few specific issues, such as criminal justice, economics and employment, disaster preparation, the environment in all its many aspects, war and conflict, among others, to get a better perspective on how to make sure coverage is thorough, meaningful, accurate and current.
Last installment: Newspapers can save the world — really!
Next installment: Earning your keep by keeping watch over the community