When Michelle Morgante joined the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star as its managing editor in late 2015, following more than two decades a reporter, editor and bureau chief with the Associated Press, she found herself interacting directly with readers on a daily basis.
Sometimes, it was a call or email from a disgruntled reader. Other times, she encountered angry locals while running errands who wondered why the paper was “attacking” a friend of theirs.
Morgante quickly recognized the overarching problem: there was a wide lack of understanding of journalism and the important role it plays in democracy.
Inspired by “From the Editor,” a column written by Sandra Duerr, executive editor at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo, Calif., she decided to create a column of her own called “Backstory” to address the confusion around what exactly journalists working at newspapers do.
“I found it was common that folks didn’t know the difference between an opinion piece and a news article or even an advertisement. There was a lack of understanding about the difference between the Sun-Star and, say, local bloggers who publish unverified news,” Morgante said. “I also found that people in my social media circles had a perception that all ‘mainstream media’ were biased or even run directly by the government.”
The veteran journalist says she is aiming to make “Backstory” a weekly column for both print and online, with topics ranging from the process behind an investigative piece to the details of covering a big breaking news story. She also plans to add brief bios about her reporters to the paper’s website in order to improve the connection with their readers and ensure they know where to go with ideas and news tips.
The subject of Morgante’s Jan. 9 “Backstory” column explained how, despite a decline in print circulation, the Sun-Star was reaching a wider audience than ever thanks to its strong digital presence.
Last November, nearly 425,000 unique visitors viewed the paper’s website, including 290,147 visits from outside the area. Meanwhile, their mobile app had more than 277,000 unique visitors that same number, an increase of 17 percent from the year prior.
“A column is a way for me to directly reach out to our readers on a mass scale. I’ve spoken before community groups and local leaders, but this reaches more people and can be read on their time,” Morgante said. “Sun-Star columns tend to be very popular with our readers and I believe that’s because they address issues that directly concern the community and do so with a local voice.”