Getting local coverage in gear
Not in Denver, says Joe H. Bullard, the former managing editor of the Denver Post, who now operates a publication-design company in the Mile High city. Here’s how he would get local coverage in gear:
By Joe H. Bullard
At a time when the demand for local news is at an all-time high, the Denver metros can't (or won't) take the steps necessary to report the news in their own backyards. And local news is the only thing they have to sell.
I sure don't get my national or international news from the Post or the Rocky. I go online. But I can't get local news online.
I define "local" news as the type we use to see in zone sections. Back in my newsroom days in the 1970s and ’80s (in Oklahoma City, Jacksonville, FL, and Denver), we used to produce two to eight zone sections twice a week with a couple of reporters and editor for each section.
We filled them with all the stuff that readers were interested in but couldn't find anyplace else: births, deaths, divorces, marriages, anniversaries, engagements, school-lunch menus, school calendars, zoning hearings, local city council meetings and meetings of the subcommittees, school news, lots of prep sports, features and “business of the week” profiles. We crammed in as much as possible. It was all relevant to readers because it happened in their neighborhoods or suburbs.
Zone sections were an invention of the ad departments, which were convinced that if you offered a small business an ad that didn't have to go ROP, they would buy in. It kind of worked and kind of didn't. Ad salesmen on commission didn't want to waste time selling small, cheap ads. The circulation departments were never smart enough to get the right section in the right zone. And newsrooms looked down their collective noses at anyone that worked on the “zones.” The sections fell into disfavor and disappeared – and all the good LOCAL stuff that readers wanted also disappeared.
Fast forward to today.
By all accounts, the Denver Post still has about 60 reporters. But those 60 reporters sure don't have their feet on the ground. (Pardon my bad pun, but Dean Singleton always talks about having a big sales force with lots of “feet on the ground.” Oh, if only he would apply the same requirement to the newsroom.)
In the Denver metro area, there are 12 to 15 suburbs with a population of at least 40,000 people apiece. Both the Post and the Rocky do a horrible job of reporting anything that occurs outside of the city and county of Denver. The bulk of the local news report is filled with DENVER stories. Last I knew, the bulk of the Post's circulation is in the suburbs and not in Denver proper.
To the credit of the Post and Rocky, they have tried some zoning (both print and Web) using “citizen” journalists, but the stories are what you’d expect: warm and fuzzy feature stories.
I live in the Denver suburb of Lakewood, which is in Jefferson County. Jeffco has the largest school district in the state, but I can't tell you the last time the Post had a Jeffco school story. I can't tell you the last time the Post had a Lakewood story. Lakewood has a population of 150,000. Forty seven percent of the population is under 35 years old. Seventy five percent is under the age of 50. Great demographics. Why is there no coverage of Lakewood and our huge school district?
You can pretty well apply the Lakewood example to any of the other Denver suburbs.
So, if I don't get my national and international news from the Post, and the paper makes no attempt to cover anything about where I live and work, then why should I subscribe to a newspaper that is not relevant to my life?
It gets worse. The Rocky Mountain News, the Post’s partner in the Denver joint-operating agency, pretty much hews to the same line as the Post in regard to what gets covered. I read the same stories in both newspapers.
If I remember correctly, one of the bedrock principles of the JOA was to preserve diversity in the news reports. Ain't happening.
I guess that the Post and the Rocky together have about 100 reporters and probably another 200 editors. Considering that number, it’s amazing they can't produce a newspaper that is relevant to my life or to the lives of any of my neighbors or friends.
I'd hate to be a newspaper editor today, but if I were. . .
Instead of spending time bemoaning how my owners are going to kill my paper, I'd make real sure that the people on my staff were covering news relevant to the communities where subscribers live.
I'd fire a third of the editors and convert another third of them to being reporters and give them a laptop. I'd send all my reporters home with a laptop. I would tell each of them his beat is now a circle with a radius of 12 blocks and the center of the circle is his house. I want to know everything that happens within those 12 blocks.
I don't want to see you in the newsroom, unless your editor or I summon you. I will count bylines. If you don't submit at least one story a day, I will be unhappy. If you go a week without a byline, you will be fired. I will expect you to know how to use a digital camera and I expect you to submit at least one picture a day from your circle.
Because all the reporters and editors are college graduates and have been making a good living for a good number of years, they all live in upscale portions of the metro area, which will limit the news that gets reported. This is a good thing because it would give me the opportunity to hire blue-collar reporters that care about what goes on in their neighborhoods.
They would be much more concerned about why their Johnny can't read and why his classroom has 39 kids, one teacher and no aide. Or why their street never gets swept, nor the snow removed. In short, we would start reporting news that is relevant to my readers.
What do I do with all this news? Put it on my web site as a zone section.
Will this save my newspaper? Don't know. But at least I will know I tried – unlike the gutless editors who have bailed out of their newspapers because they didn't want to make tough decisions.