Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Getting local coverage in gear

A common theme among newspapers “reinventing” themselves is that they intend to concentrate on local news, the strongest and most defensible part of their franchises. But are they really walking the walk?

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Follow the money my friend. Its cheap and easy to follow the "pack". Its also the most likely way for a local journalist to get recognition at a national level - sccoping or putting a unique spin on a national story.

5:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I definitely agree with you. I'm probably what you would call a blue collar reporter. I've been at small newspapers around the Kansas City metro for five years since I started my career. One year, I worked for a small daily in the inner-city community of KCK, which has a unified city and county government. Our big metro daily was supposed to have a weekly community section covering our area, but most of the time I was the only journalist at government meetings. Our big metro papers and TV stations tended to only cover crime and the big news stories that would affect the entire area, not just the county. I think this was mostly from pressure from their editors and understaffing.

6:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Absolutely great, mind-blowing breakthough post. Instead of laying down and wallowing in the misery, at last a proposal to do something and fight. So what would you do with that huge expensive new and clearly redundant office building the Denver papers built for themselves downtown? Leave it empty?

6:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Weekly newspapers, with more feet on the ground, are already ably filling the role you describe.

8:28 AM  
Blogger Jim of L-Town said...

I love your blog. I link to it frequently from mine - freefromeditors.blogspot.com.
As a 30-year reporter (Booth buyout recipient of 2007) I have lamented frequently on my blog about the death of beat reporting.
Whether or not newspapers can be saved is truly an open question, but without getting back to basics and covering local news, there is no question, the newspaper will die.

10:51 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

Joe, looks like you haven't changed since your days in Jacksonville. Good!

12:58 PM  
Blogger tom said...

My back-of-the napkin calculations peg the number of page views required to support a single reporter at about 40,000 a day.

Unless George Clooney comes to your neighborhood and commits a triple homicide, you'll be lucky if your neighborhood coverage drives 4,000 a day.

So, yeah, go local and go online, that's where the future is. You'll have to live in Zambia on what it pays, which might crimp the reporting a bit.

11:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where to begin? The circular logic seems most apparent. Media outlets tried citizen journalists. According to the author, the citizen journalists turned in a lot of fluff stories. But if I restrict professional journalists to 12 blocks with their home at the center, some how I will not get fluff stories.

Has the author ever read a suburban journal or a zone edition? No, really, have you? Because the only art you will see is kids playing in the park, cutline articles of an under 8 girls soccer team, and the Johnson twins' recent pie baking success.

Zzzz. What? Huh? Call circulation and cancel my subscription.

What is in it for the journalist? When I graduated college, I was offered a position at a zone edition. I turned it down because (1) the advancement opportunities were non existent and (2) the writing (AKA story telling) was terrible.

I took a position at a rural daily paper because I could continue my ability to tell a story and I could advance up the journalist ladder.

Let's move on to other issues with this post.

Let's say I live in Edmond, work in Oklahoma City, and have two kids in public school. The lunch menu is posted on line. Every Monday, I get notes about the going ons at the school. Why do I care about some zoned story in Edmond?

Does it affect my job? Does it affect my family's well being?

If the story is that good, why is the story not in the regular edition of the paper. The edition that the folks in Yukon, Mustang, and Norman get?

You want to count bylines? Count me out. I worked for a publisher who counted bylines. The result? Short, choppy stories and a bad product that no one was buying least of all advertisers.

You were not rewarded for the length of a story. If you could squat and drop six five-paragraph stories, then you continued to have a job. If you wanted to tell a singular story in 30 paragraphs, then you can find another job.

I left journalism as a profession after working for that publisher. The best story I ever wrote took three months to develop. I had to interview and re-interview sources, collect and analyze data, and develop a pull together a package. Under your approach, though, that story would have never seen the light of day.

Then, there is the crime story. Actually, it is not crime stories that fill the pages of the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News, and round out local television news coverage. It is graphic actions like car wrecks, murders, and stabbings.

If only these media outlets covered crime like embezzlement, fraud, and antitrust. The San Jose Mercury News presented a wonderful package during the Microsoft antitrust trial.

This trial affected far more of us yet coverage by most newspapers relied on bland AP copy. Compare coverage of the Microsoft trial and the OJ trial.

The fall out of the Microsoft trial are still felt today. You would not know that by reading a newspaper though. That case affects the type and form of products that we buy in 2008.

How does OJ affect us? Yet, every media outlet could not get enough of OJ.

Ever sit in a county commissioner meeting? Lots of no bid contract going on. Plus, talk about bid rigging during the auction process. Those stories take time to develop. You want a byline every day.

Irregularities in government auction take a lot of time and knowledge.

Every newspaper owner sees a local or hyper local emphasis as the key to success. Yet, the New York Times, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal remain the top 3 newspaper by circulation.

Those three newspaper maintain that status, not by limiting their reporters to 12 blocks, by encouraging their reporters to find interesting stories. In their own voices, those three newspapers tell a story.

Despite the ugly 9 column layout, the Oklahoman remains a lousy newspaper because its reporters cannot tell a story. In short, the product is crap.

The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News have a crap product that no one is interested in because their reporters cannot tell a story.

Want to make the Post profitable? Fire every single reporter and editor NOW!.

Hire 120 reporters and turn them loose. A person living in Aurora must be interested in a story filed from Boulder. If they are not interested in the story, the reporter is fired and a new reporter is brought in.

Produce a newspaper that tells a story, and you will have a nice return on your investment.

Go local, count by lines, publish material already available on line like lunch menus, represents a recipe for going out of business by degrees.

6:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This idea could work if we had produced a generation of Jimmy Breslin-like reporters, who could weave gossamer from people getting a haircut. It might also work in highly urbanized area where there is a lot going on in a compacted 12-block radius. But it won't work with a generation of reporters pumped out by journalism colleges, where initiative is discouraged and students are daily drilled on the global significance of the inverted pyramid. It also has a lot of problems in suburbs today where moms and pops are off earning a living to pay for their McMansions during the day, and junior is in a day care center or school and unavailable for an interview. Available to talk to a zoned reporter is Maria, the live-in Spanish-speaking house help. My suggestion: go back to the days when journalism made healthy and viable newspapers by covering local cops, local courts, local government, and local schools.

7:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I work for the Post's online department, so I have a different perspective on this ... here's some context on the Post and the Rocky's online "zoned" coverage:

Rocky: Local News

Denver Post: Aurora News
Denver Post: Boulder News
Denver Post: Colorado Springs News
Denver Post: Golden News + Community
Denver Post: Littleton News + Community
Denver Post: Arvada News + Community

Now I don't think article headline link lists for a suburb that get updated maybe a couple times a day make for a quality local product -- but it's a start. When the Post (or, well, the Rocky) gets location-based hooks into more of the information that is published regularly, the value of these indexes will increase... How long until those indexes pull an audience large enough for an online ad buy? Depends on the tools you have to sell online ads, and what businesses have the knowledge and funds to use 'em. Will these indexes be enough? Can't predict. Will a change of strategy help? Can't predict that either.

8:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem in my paper is the earlier deadlines now being imposed by the business department. We have city council meetings in the evenings here, so people who work can come and participate. I can get a really important breaking news story in the next day's edition if it is front-page material, but they won't break into the inside pages for routine stories. So if I write what happened Tuesday night on Wednesday, it won't appear in the newspaper until Thursday, and my editor says he doesn't want to put Tuesday news in Thursday's paper.

10:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The trick, for me, is to then find yourself a platform and an organisational principle that is geography-lite and network-heavy, ie www.mylocalwriter.com/lakewood - leaves you free from going under when 'mother' the Denver Post does..

10:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A lot of these conversations are theoretical but interesting.
Here's a perspective from the real side.
Neighborhood news?
From who?
Kid reporters who live 30 miles from the city they cover and despise the residents of the cities they cover? When there's a murder, these guys don't hit the neighborhoods on foot, they call the mayor because the people in the neighborhoods scare them to death.
Reporters who speak ONLY English covering Haitian, Brazilian and Puerto Rican neighborhoods.
Reporters who have never been in a bar, diner, barbershop or church in the cities they cover.
Editors who believe political "he said/she said" flaps and meeting coverage are the highest forms of journalism.
Editors who associate with the communities "movers and shakers" at cocktail parties and can't stand the social stigma of offending their friends.
Publishers, editors and reporters who weren't born and have NEVER lived where they wor.
You have to really KNOW a town to write about it in a way that defines that comminity.
And yes, I live where I work, I speak a language other than English used in the city, I was born here and grew up here and I'm sitting on 20 writing awards in 11 years with this paper, a daily in a city of 200,000.
I do it by knowing my city, by knowing coips, creiminals and city hall clerks by their first names and I get a lot of stories hanging out in local bars and at church.
Try it. It works,. It's always worked.

12:05 PM  

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