GateHouse Newsroom

3 ways newspapers can better serve readers in a post-election world

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Reprinted from GateHouse Newsroom

The election post-mortems have been dire: Journalism slipped farther into a grave of its own making.

Pundits have been saying journalism:
Is to blame;
Is unbearably smug;
Is unprepared for what comes next.

It's that last one that most interests me, and especially for community news. So many of our community newspapers in swing states, in rural areas, in the usually solid Midwest, either knew what the big national media didn't or they should have.

Granted, our forces are smaller than ever as we try to find a way to monetize the digital landscape. But smaller newsrooms call for stronger leaders. We need an unflinching gaze to prioritize our readers and what they want more than ever: investigative journalism.

A few years ago, I was in a small newsroom in Missouri talking about public service journalism as part of a training program. Afterward, the editor and publisher cornered me and told me I didn't know what it would be like to have to live in a small town if they did public service journalism. I asked if they meant they wouldn't reveal a public official's wrongdoing, even if that helped many more in their town. They just shook their heads, sure I didn't understand. I live in the anonymity of the Chicago area, after all.

But I once worked for a smallish daily in Texas, and I heard a similar sentiment. I wanted to explore race in the town after the O.J. Simpson verdict, and I had several reporters starting some conversations and asking for data. The top editor called me into his office one day and told me we should stop. I thought he would say he didn't think there was a problem. Instead, he broke my heart. He said he didn't think the newspaper was the place to explore the issue. He thought the area did have a problem, but the chamber had a committee that was taking a look at it.

So, I did understand what the Missouri folks were saying. But I didn't like it.

My very first job was at a small daily in New Mexico, where the editor was fearless. Under his watch, we put the county manager in prison for pretending to buy computers but pocketing the money instead. The editor also blew the whistle on the publisher for embezzling. He, too, wound up in prison. I fell in love with the idea that the newspaper was a watchdog, and that we could serve the public, even with a small staff.

So, in this post-election season, let's get specific.

In small towns and big cities, we need to serve our readers. Here are some ideas:

  • 1. COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT: We need to reach out to our communities, in person, to listen. Examples:
    Reader advisory boards: If you don't have one, this is a great way to involve the community in the news process. It's amazing how much you'll learn. I love this column by Alan Miller, editor of The Dispatch in Columbus, Ohio. After you read it, you'll want a sounding board of your own.
    Targeted outreach: Dennis Anderson, editor of the Peoria Journal Star, started a reader advisory board in an area that usually only made headlines for crime. The bridges he and the newsroom have built have led to richer coverage and better understanding, something to which we can all aspire.
    Topical outreach: Rockford Register Star organized conversations and coverage around public housing in 2015, and this year, they are tackling race. The idea is to be a thought leader on the important issues in your community.
  • 2. DITCH THE "HE SAID, SHE SAID:"  If this election has taught us anything, it's that we must cite facts and point out where our political leaders are telling falsehoods. We need to ensure we are taking fact-checking to a local level. Read this if you want to learn how to get started. And if you're interested in helping your readers discern fact from fiction, news literacy programs targeted at children and adults help people do just that. Get something started in your community
  • 3. DO IMPORTANT JOURNALISM: Hold public officials in your community accountable. Look out for the little guy. Do the stuff that got us all into this crazy business. If we don't make the time for journalism with impact, we might as well be picking up that shovel and digging that grave ourselves. On the other hand, if we prioritize the important stories, we will always be relevant. Because we tell the stories no one else does about our towns. The stories that make our towns better places to live. As divided as our country feels in the election aftermath, people are more unified than they think. If we bring them together for conversation and if we stick up for them, we position ourselves for survival.

As senior director of content, Jean Hodges develops strategy and works with newsroom leaders on digital transformation, from newsroom structure to using analytics to inform news decisions. As journalists face myriad challenges, the best are experimenting with new ways to draw readers in, while fearlessly tackling watchdog reporting and sticking up for the underdog. Hey, there's hope for us yet. 

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