How to save local journalism

The pathogen called corporate media has slashed staffing levels to such an extent, it can’t possibly be considered good investment management, or good stewardship of community institutions that in many cases are more than a hundred years old.

These corporations claim to save newspapers, and the few family-owned papers that remain that are selling their assets to corporations say they have little or no choice. The onslaught is relentless.

All that is true, but what will be left after the dust settles? It’s a classic example of killing the patient in order to save him.

The days of well-staffed newsrooms are gone. If that’s not puzzling enough, even some advertising sales teams are being cut. Meanwhile, the corporate suits try to figure out how to respond to below-forecast revenue, what to do with print until digital revenue increases sufficiently to replace it, and why website traffic is down (it’s not rocket science — traffic is down because content is down because staffing has been cut).

The solution is simple: either take down paywalls or stop publishing print editions. But I’m not interested in helping corporate media survive these troubled times. I fully focus on helping local journalism survive and thrive.

Once was the time when newspapers owned their markets. Printing presses were expensive and the local newspaper had a monopoly on printing. The internet has changed all that.

Not only does the local print newspaper not have a monopoly on the distribution of news and information, they have left themselves vulnerable by spreading themselves too thin.

They have given up covering city hall in favor of advertorials and click-bait stories called “content that matters.” Their pages are filled with wire stories and syndicated content. They cling to the notion that subscribers will remain despite pernicious increases in their subscription bills, the one-size-fits-all format of newspapers, and the declining local content. They convince themselves that advertisers are loyal.

Newspapers have jettisoned the content that their older readers expect while charging their longest, most loyal readers higher and higher subscription fees and “premium edition” upcharges. Newspaper websites, even those that put digital first, have failed to resonate with younger readers for myriad reasons. And advertisers are noticing it all.

Never has the time been better for guerrilla startups that pick up that which their local newspapers have abandoned. There still exists a healthy demand for strong, local content about things like city hall, county boards and school boards. This demand is coming from a golden demographic: people who are interested and engaged in their community, and who are willing to financially support anyone who can fill the void in local meat-and-potatoes news coverage that newspapers can no longer provide.

A small cadre of journalists with one or two savvy ad sales people can surpass their local newspapers in meaty content at a fraction of the operating cost of legacy news outlets.

Local citizens who value local news are willing to contribute money and other resources to keep that vital service alive. And local businesses are willing to sponsor these hyper local, micro focused websites because of their growing audiences and because it is socially responsible.

That’s not all. There is an increasing number of non-profits awarding grants for this kind of news gathering. Some news sites have secured non-profit status.

Guerrilla local journalism is not for the squeamish. In the case of my site, it’s not even my day job, it’s just two weeks old, and I have made almost no attempts to seek funding, mostly because I don’t have to at my present pace of operations.

Local journalism of the type I am suggesting is a boutique industry with a very specific clientele. The good news is, gigs like this don’t have to be everything to everyone. They just have to be really good at what they do, the value of which will quickly become apparent to members of the community who themselves make a difference and who will readily help others who do, as well.

Damn the corporations! Full speed ahead!

More about Randy Foster and his own startup news site, here.
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Are “Best practices” and “content that matters” killing us?

“Best practices” and “content that matters” — As a middle manager on the GateHouse Media hamster wheel, I heard these phrases frequently.

I regularly tore myself away from the newsroom to be taught about  “best practices.” My staff and I had to cut back on local news coverage while practicing “best practices.”

For example, a Google Sheet called an “edition summary” chained me to a desk once  GateHouse’s Center For News Design took over design of my newspaper. That was a best practice.

An edition summary is a page-by-page plan for content in the daily print edition. Seems straightforward and common sense. But because of a steady stream of new deadlines throughout the week, I grew to spend the majority of my day keeping the edition summaries updated and preparing and uploading content to meet morning, noon and evening deadlines. This was a best practice.

Never mind that we were supposed to deemphasize the print edition in favor of a “digital first” “best practice,” I was spending even more time than ever on print content. Or the fact that CND was supposed to “free local newsrooms up so they could focus on creating strong local content” but instead was followed by newsroom downsizing. Or the fact that we had to resurrect part of the shuttered universal desk … at the expense of reporter and photographer positions … to keep up with CND workflow demands.

My day was consumed by a relentless workflow to keep CND busy with a mix of local and non-local content, some of which is CND content called More Content Now that designers already have access to but who don’t have time to search for it because of their own hamster wheel conditions.

Then there were the relentless conference calls: the weekly department head conference call, the weekly editor conference call, the monthly “digital leaders” conference call, the almost weekly “best practices” webinars, the annual 10-hour Poynter Institute training, and the occasional online training sessions to learn about new systems for payroll, content management, social media management, video creation and third party promotion services.

Just as soon as we grew comfortable with one system, GateHouse would roll out its replacement … because someone at GateHouse HQ has to prove he or she is productive and applying “best practices.”

All of these sessions grouped together are a “best practice,” and themselves are peppered with their own slew of best practices.

I spent so much time learning about best practices, I had almost no time to digest them and teach my own newsrooms about them. I had to triage them, choosing training for the new timecard system over the new social media widget.

Most irksome of all were the dictates that I adopt best practices that I had adopted a decade ago (and in some cases, developed on my own) but which was told to back away from during previous corporate “best practices” brainstorms.

I also was oversaturated with another phrase, “content that matters,” and frequently scrolled through Google Sheets filled with lots of great things other, larger GateHouse newspapers were doing. Such as?

Such as the talk Bill Church, senior vice president of news at GateHouse, once gave about his Pulitzer Prize-winning Sarasota, Florida, newsroom when he was editor there. He talked about how he spent the bulk of his days playing SimCity on his phone and thinking about new and innovative ways to cover the news. He talked about the new furniture he brought into the newsroom and the feel-good vibe that he created there. Where he truly lost me was when he talked about a story that his firearms reporter covered.

Firearms reporter? I could barely manage to have a city reporter. This was a man who was truly out of touch with the 10-person, 6-person, 1-person and sometimes zero-person newsrooms throughout GateHouse that he was about to lead.

But Bill Church talks about “content that matters.”

In practice, “content that matters” is code for “content that gets clicks.” That’s why we rolled out a slide show of sex offenders but stopped covering local city council meetings. That’s why we started doing weekly branded content (aka, advertorials) but scaled back on our local election coverage.

“Content that matters” is also a “best practice.”

I joined the New Bern Sun Journal newsroom in 2009, following a wave of layoffs there that trimmed the staff by a half dozen positions. Some of those positions went to a sister paper nearby to staff a universal copy desk. The rest simply went away. Still, I had 14 people left in my newsroom — plenty to get the job done.

On my first day I was met by a half-empty newsroom dominated by empty desks and a demoralized staff. The paper was stricken by errors, press delays and bad print quality. Some of those things I had no control over, so I focused on things I could control.

I dusted off the newspaper’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. I removed empty desks and created a large coffee service area with a refrigerator. We started live-streaming important events on our website. We covered the hell out of municipal elections and the city’s year-long celebration of its 300th birthday. I instituted better quality control measures and cut errors enough for readers to comment about it. We published half a page of letters to the editor every day, seven days a week. I even added back a crossword puzzle that had been arbitrarily removed.

And complaints stopped. Circulation declines stopped. Website traffic doubled. Long-time co-workers told me they were no longer embarrassed to tell people they worked at the Sun Journal.

Then Halifax Media bought us and peppered us with its version of best practices. After it was done with us, our website traffic was a third what it had been, we lost positions, and circulation resumed its decline.

Then GateHouse Media bought Halifax, and the decline continued. But GateHouse responded to the declines by flogging its readers: subscribers had to pay more for their paper (including hidden costs for “premium” inserts), but the paper had less local content because the newsroom staff had been cut in half while taking on even more projects.

Is this a best practice, too?

Tune in for my next entry where I suggest how to save local journalism.

 

The death of company loyalty

As a department manager at a small newspaper, I’ve had a very limited roll in laying people off. A middle manager, I was both insider and outsider in the layoff process, neither decision-maker nor bystander.

I’ve seen the game companies play, the weeks of preparation to satisfy the reptilian-brained corporate demand for short-term profits to compensate for poor management decisions and inaccurate forecasting, and the cat-brained ways that corporate-demanded layoffs are implemented at the local level.

In my 23 years as a department head, I’ve directly participated in just one layoff. I didn’t choose who got the ax; that was done at levels above my head without my consultation or consent. Given that my newsroom went from 13 positions when I started in 2008 to six on the day I resigned in October 2017, all but one of those lost positions came as the result of dark positions never coming back. I was lucky that there was only one person under my management who had to endure a layoff.

Still, I’ve seen plenty of people lose their jobs in other departments and observed the three-step process that leads to letting someone competent go because someone somewhere over them was incompetent:

  1. The notice at the beginning of a quarter that profits were not where they needed to be.
  2. The announcement by the middle of the quarter that costs would be adjusted to better reflect company expectations due to soft revenue realizations.
  3. The notification a short time later that at best an unfilled position would go away or, at worst, someone would be let go and the HR director would be there Friday afternoon to make sure it’s done right, in a way that won’t result in a lawsuit.

“Done right” in this era of downsizing means that the targeted worker came to work that day fully unaware how bad the day would become, is called into the seldom used office of the publisher or HR director, both of whom are home-based a two-hour drive away. Without compassion or emotion, the newly former employee is notified, rights and benefits are explained, and is escorted out of the building with a promise that their things would be made available to them later.

It’s a cold-hearted, calculated system designed to avoid trouble. But I’ve seen this done to people who deserve gold watches and going away parties, not a summary dismissal and a bum’s rush out of the building.

Meanwhile, co-workers who were friends of the departed that morning whisper among themselves and try their best to act as if nothing happened, while thanking their lucky stars that it wasn’t them … not today, at least.

Newsrooms have been hard-hit over the last decade by these waves of layoffs. All the ones I know of are half their number or less since 2005, declining in size at faster rates than their declining circulations.

But journalists, most of whom will stare corruption in its face, pound out copy about layoffs at the local factory, and sift through spreadsheets looking for signs of malfeasance, join their coworkers in advertising, circulation and front office, sniffing the bones of the departed in the form of the newly emptied desks, searching for extra staplers, thumb drives and special pens (the kind the company doesn’t buy anymore) before returning to their own chairs and thanking their lucky stars it wasn’t them.

Most of these newspapers will have little or no coverage of their own layoffs, neither the one that morning nor the cumulative effect of staff cuts over the past decade. What coverage they do have will put an Orwellian spin on it, how the layoff is not a layoff but a restructuring to better position the company for growth moving forward in the digital age.

And yet, corporations that offer 401(k) plans with no company matches, that have not given out regular raises in years, that pay seven-figure bonuses to top-level corporate officers who target $20,000 and $25,000 a year employees for elimination to cut costs, expect those few who remain to be productive, happy and, yes, loyal.

As a Baby Boomer, it was my parents’ generation that last knew about companies loyal to their employees. Our parents are appalled at the way companies treat their workers today, but I’ve never known anything different. My first newspaper job paid $7 an hour and kept office paper in a locked cabinet. Two years later, I rejected a 25-cent raise and started working on my resume.

The 1990s were the Golden Age of newspaper profits, but I and my colleagues seldom benefited from it. Newspaper companies count on their college-educated journalists to be happy just to have a job.

Now, as the industry declines, corporations and investment bankers are gobbling up newspapers like vultures, trying to squeeze out the last print dollars while they figure out how to compete with Google.

GateHouse Media, the company I last worked for, built its “Center for News Design” in Austin, Texas, to churn out pages, and said it would lighten the workload in its hard-working local newsrooms so they could focus on generating local content. The copy editors and designers were gone from the local newsrooms, but not all the work they did went away, and what remained became the responsibility of an increasingly small number of survivors.

Meanwhile, in Austin, journalists churned out well-designed, error-riddled pages that required time-devouring step-by-step, page-by-page instructions from local editors about placement and priorities. My newsroom went from one deadline per day, to deadlines throughout the day to keep the designers in Austin productive.

Austin is also a content mill, pouring out unremarkable plug and play content to make up for the declining amount of local news in GateHouse newspapers.

Also in Austin are other journalists whose full-time jobs are to come up with wonderful ideas for more work to unleash on local newsrooms, including a relentless flow of spreadsheets, production metrics, systems, procedures and webinars. They cheerfully call these “best practices.”

The expectation that I continue to be loyal as all this unfolded was too much. I found a different job outside the newspaper industry, gave two-weeks notice, and submitted a memo proposing that savings resulting from my departure could be used to avoid other layoffs. It was the completion of more than eight years in that newsroom.

Because I quit and was not leaving due to a layoff, I was given a nice pot-luck party in the main conference room with a delicious company-bought cake. The room was filled with people about whom I cared very much.

Following the party, my boss and her boss, along with several other department heads and regional directors, convened a meeting with me to discuss what needed to be done as a result of my departure.

Even though it was my last day at the job, the publisher gave me an assignment. I nodded that I would do it, but it was a lie – I’d already turned in my computer and would soon be locked out of my office and email account.

The next day was supposed to be my last day, but I took it off. That night, I woke up at 2 a.m., resentment boiling over. Although leaving my job, I was not leaving town, but the company for which I had worked expected me to throw away 30 years of journalism experience and more than eight years covering the city where I lived.

To do any less would not be loyal.

Screw that. I started my own news service, covering the same city my former employer was covering, but I have an edge: my expenses are shockingly low (but so are receivables, which total zero), I have experience, connections and a good reputation in town, and there is plenty to cover now that the local paper for which I once worked has nearly abandoned local coverage in favor of advertorials and special projects with sustainable revenue models.

I don’t do this out of spite. The word “loyalty” is not alien to me. I’m a former Marine, after all. I love the paper I worked for and the people I worked with while I was there.

But corporate journalism has not earned my loyalty.

Now that there is a competing news source in town, one that is not afraid to run stories about GateHouse and the newspaper in town that it owns, perhaps GateHouse will put some resources back into its local newspaper and restore some of the local news coverage that has been cut.

There’s nothing like a little public exposure to improve one’s behavior.

Why your local paper isn’t so good at covering itself

New Bern Post

The Sun Journal (New Bern, NC) has a new advertising director, but you probably wouldn’t know that from reading the Sun Journal’s own article, here.

The Sun Journal has a new executive editor, but you probably wouldn’t know from the Sun Journal’s own article, here, that his position is interim or why he is replacing me at the job.

Newspapers pride themselves in covering local news, but when it comes to covering themselves, it’s hit and miss.

Part of it is that journalists don’t like to write about themselves, even if the news is positive.

Part of it is that the corporations that own newspapers want to control the message, especially if the news is negative.

These two reasons are not new. What is fairly new, however, is the technology newspapers use to share information between themselves for public distribution.

Let’s take them one at a time.

First, about the journalists. Reporters are trained from the start to be dispassionate about the topics they cover and avoid as much as possible putting their own voice into the story. You may notice that journalists covering events rarely applaud, for example. This dispassion is so ingrained in journalists, especially veteran journalists, that when a story about the newspaper itself needs to be assigned, it is seen as dirty duty.

Then there are the corporations. In the case of the story about my replacement at the Sun Journal, it reports that there will be a new leader in the New Bern and Kinston newsrooms and that he will replace me. It doesn’t say why I left or when (pretty basic facts to leave out, journalistically speaking). The reason that information was left out was because I left for personal and professional reasons spelled out in a lengthy resignation letter that Sun Journal and GateHouse managers would rather you not know about.

Finally, the technology, which explains what went wrong with the story about the new ad manager.

The Sun Journal and its sister papers in Kinston and Jacksonville, more and more, are being led from the regional office at StarNews Media in Wilmington. That’s where the publisher (the overall boss), the senior editor, the HR director, and the circulation manager are all based.

At the same time, due to diminished staff sizes in the local offices, there is more and more sharing of content between the four newspapers.

The StarNews of Wilmington did a story about the new regional advertising director, but the reporter who wrote the story and the editor who checked the story and posted it online weren’t really thinking that it was going to be seen by readers in New Bern, Kinston and Jacksonville. It would have been an easy fix, revising a sentence or two, but Wilmington is the dominant paper of the four dailies and readers in New Bern, Kinston and Jacksonville are not high priorities.

That wouldn’t be all that big an issue were it not for the fact that the StarNews article was posted to all four dailies at the same time.

You may notice a lot of news about Kinston, Jacksonville and Wilmington on the New Bern Sun Journal website, with a lot less news about New Bern. It’s a combination of shared stories, and smaller news staffs.

The solution is in your hands. The Sun Journal, which already is arguably the second largest of the four dailies, will not get better by readers quitting their subscriptions and businesses cancelling their advertising. If you value having a daily newspaper in New Bern, you need to support the one we have, even if it is owned by a corporation that is more focused on quarterly dividend checks than it is on keeping century old community institutions like the Sun Journal strong and healthy.

Words, punctuation, and phrases I hate: A growing list

rivereditor

I’ve been in the journalism business for most of my adult life – going on 30 years, dating to the days when newspapers were at the top of the information food chain. Here are some words and phrases I have come to detest.

1. Suspects

Reporters use this word to avoid a libel suit in case the person they maligned turns out to be innocent. I’m fine with that. But police are not looking for the suspect who robbed a convenience store. A suspect did not rob anything. A robber robbed a convenience store, and police are looking for the robber who robbed a convenience store. Now, if they find the person they think is the robber, that person is a suspect until he gets into the court system, at which point he becomes a defendant until found guilty or innocent.

2. Crews

Journalists, particularly TV reporters, love this word…

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