Earning your keep by keeping watch over the community
The numbers are really in-your-face clear: by a large majority, people do not care enough about what is in their local newspaper to bother to buy it. We need to turn that completely around, because newspapers are the to the community what your eyes and ears, mind and mouth are to your body, essential to know what’s going on in the world around you, to make sense of it all and decide what to do about it.
In order to fill its role successfully, people need to know that their newspaper is keeping an eye on all the important things that have a direct impact on their lives. We’re talking about things like employment, education, health care, transportation, housing, the environment, energy, food and housing, and so on, to use top-level labels. We’ll develop a more granular understanding of just what fits under these lable in discussions to come.
Keeping an eye on things means that you’re maintaining a constant check on everything in each category, so that you can alert your readers to problems, challenges, difficulties, risks and threats as they exist and hopefully when people can do something about them to solve, overcome, deal with, mitigate or anticipate before they become outright disasters.
Just as important, your paper needs to provide means for the public to discuss their circumstances, to consider and weigh potential actions with intelligence and a sense of purpose, as well as to evaluate how programs are being implemented and working toward their intended ends.
Consider this example, local water services. In the region your newspaper serves, there may be two or three — or twenty or thirty — municipal water services, public and private. They may draw their water from rivers, from a lake, or from aquifers. They may use distribution systems that were largely installed in the past few decades, but some may have pipes that were already in the ground when Abraham Lincoln was President. Some may have well-trained and equiped service departments, others may rely on contractors to fix leaks. Financially, they may be stand-alone operations, funded by fees or taxes, or they could be combined with a sewer district or public works department. And so on. Each water service will have its own
You need to serve all the people in your entire region, which means you need to know something about every one of these water systems — but that’s only a start.
You then need to find out and keep track of difficulties and challenges across the region. One system may have problems with water main breaks, often in the winter. Why? Old pipes? Soil chemistry? What are the people who run the system doing about it? Are the problems tolerable? Are the fixes expensive?
Other systems may have difficulties during dry times greater than other areas. Is there a fix? Is is something people need to live with? Can the paper keep people informed about availability through the summer months?
And then there are water chemistry issues. Who is watching over treatment plants in each system? Is the system’s plant and equipment well-maintained? Getting old in the tooth? What contaminants are they on the look-out for? For people drawing water from wells, how do they check on their water quality? How many people actually get their water checked? What threats do they face, such as minerals and chemical contamination?
People are used to seeing these issues come up in newspaper stories when something has gone wrong — a street is closed to fix a major leak, people are told they need to boil their water before using it, an entire water system is declared unsafe after nasty contaminants are detected (maybe for the first time anyone has tested the water for them). Just think about Flint, Michigan;
This kind of coverage is too little and too late. It’s like telling someone the horses are gone because the barn door was left open. Thanks, Jack. If you’re keeping an eye on the barn, you earn your keep by telling people that the door is open while the horses are still where they belong. If you do this, you’re providing a service of value.
There are many ways to do this work, and we will explore a few in the next installment, and you need to plan on working hard to figure out exactly how to integrate this oversight into daily reporting, which we will also explore in more depth as we go.
These are matters of creating a form that meets the requirements of function, and making that happen effectively is a matter of attitude. The attitude you take as a publisher, editor, producer, writer or reporter is everything. It is the foundation of your structures, it is the energy that drives your work.
If you are going to be successful, financially, professionally, personally, you need to reflect deeply on your relationship with the community you serve. People depend on you for information — if you’re any good at your job, that is. You need to be driven by the desire to gather and report that information, and always on edge that you might be missing something, leaving a gap in your coverage, leaving people unaware of something they need to know. You serve them, they depend on you, you must do your level best to deserve their trust.
You must respect the people you serve. You need to understand the difference between providing information, which is your job, and making sense of that information in order to make decisions and take action, which is their job. You do not need to worry what people will think or decide based on your coverage, you need to trust in the ultimate wisdom of the public to do what is in fact right — that is, as long as you do your job and do it well. The worst problems humanity has ever faced have come from people who do not think things through thoroughly and fairly, who frame the world in their own ignorance and refuse to consider aspects of reality that do not conform to their views. If you strain and pre-chew the news and use your newspaper to spoon-feed your readers what you want them to thinnk, don’t be surprised when they either spit it out or find someplace else to eat!
Do your job right, though, fill the community’s need for information to the best of your ability, and they’ll beat a path to your door — or to your newsstand…
Last installment: A newspaper that people will pay for
Next installment: Providing overwatch for all the important things