Re-design and hyper-local are fast becoming the buzz words in the major markets of the newspaper industry. Two of the three larger dailies that service the Brown County area have unveiled major changes in layout, story placement and in coverage. This has meant a noticeable shift away from a heavy emphasis on national and international stories on news pages toward more stories on local and state issues.
An old friend presented a program at the recent West Texas Press Association summer meeting in Ruidoso that could have served as a primer for community news reporters and editors. It is a mantra that most of us in the small daily and weekly newspaper markets have long understood, even if we get lazy from time-to-time and drift away from fundamentals. Local news is the bread and butter of community journalism. Jess Williams called it refrigerator journalism — the relative value of relatives. Williams is currently the Community Liaison to the Dona Ana County (N.M.) Board of Commissioners. Prior to his public information work he was a community newspaper editor in a weekly, twice weekly and daily market. He knows first hand the economics of providing your audience with news they cannot get from any other source. It is a lesson the metros are starting to learn.
Community newspapers have never been able to afford Austin bureaus, let alone a bureau in Washington, D.C. Many small dailies and most weekly newspapers cannot afford a wire service, even the scaled down one the Associated Press offers. If they are successful, editors learn that news does not happen in the newsroom; they have to get the reporters out to meetings, restaurants, parks, festivals, rodeos and churches. Every crowd and demographic has a story.
For the metros, it is not a matter of cost, but rather a matter of congestion. The competition in providing world, national, state and entertainment information has become intense from the Internet. It has been an interesting, if not entirely enjoyable, exercise for a long-time reader of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to adjust to its “new” newspaper. I have long relied on them for news on the national and international scene. In a recent week of front page stories there was space devoted to the 100 greatest country songs of all time, photos of pop stars Brittany Spears and Lindsey Lohan, Cowboys coach Wade Phillips and quarterback Tony Romo. Readers seeking news on the Iraq and Afghanistan, the Middle East or other current international stories had to hunt inside the front section among the preponderance of advertisements. The ad placement is another element of the re-design. The front section is loaded and the local, life and entertainment sections have been opened up for more stories.
Williams’ presentation also included some perspective of life on the other side of the public information spectrum. As the county’s director of public information, he said, “I don’t lie, and I don’t spin. I give information from the county’s point of view.” He encouraged news people in the audience to ask the right questions. Their obligation is to get the story right, not necessarily to provide balance. They need to be accurate and get to the truth.
In listening to his advice I was reminded of a story in the current issue of the “American Journalism Review.” Rachel Smolkin explores the premise — “what the mainstream media can learn from Jon Stewart,” host of “The Daily Show.” On the surface it is perhaps a strange premise for a journalism review to explore, she says, what can professional journalists learn from a comedy show that brutally satirizes the media? As she posed her question to a number journalism ethicists and professionals she found it was not that strange. According to one professor, the lesson of the “The Daily Show” is not that reporters should be funny, but that they should try to be honest. The truth itself doesn’t respect point of view. The truth is never balanced…we have to stop being so doggone scared of everything, Hub Brown of Syracuse University said.
As Eric Deggans, the TV and media critic of the St. Petersburg Times, said, it is not what Jon Stewart can teach us, but rather remind us, much like Williams did— to not underestimate the audience. Be relevant, be bold and as Williams said ask the right or tough questions. Re-designed newspapers with elements of pop culture scattered throughout will attract new readers — solid reporting will engage and hold them.
Robert Brincefield is publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.