If the 2016 election taught the newspaper industry one thing, it’s that we don’t know what’s important to many people in our communities.
Yes, we publish letters to the editor and do “man on the street” reaction to major news stories. But we learned in the voting results of 2016 that there are a lot of issues crucial to the people in our communities that don’t make a typical news narrative.
To hold onto a badge of relevancy, we need to change this. We need to convene the community in conversation about what really matters, even when it is on no one’s council or school board agenda.
Our citizens hunger for solutions to the issues that dominate their lives—financial, upward mobility, race relations, faith. But there is a hopelessness that no one—particularly the government—really cares. The newspaper’s traditional role has been to report the problem and leave the solutions to others. We are supposed to be disinterested, after all. This “hands off” method leaves the public seeing us as uninterested in our communities, especially after a decade of cutbacks that have us sending fewer reporters and photographers, and supporting fewer philanthropic efforts with free or low-cost ad space. People see their newspaper as no more engaged as any other national operation with a local franchise.
There’s time to change this. And people want us to change it. They’re talking, but there’s no one -particularly the government—listening.
There will be barriers to this: time; doubters within your own organization; partisans. Charge ahead anyway. Here’s how.
Don’t think you have to invent this. There likely is a well-respected alliance in your community who might have formed for another reason and has started the process. At the very least, they’ve got a good mailing list. Find the one with no aim other than forming civic alliances.
Choose a face to announce your forum. It could be your columnist, or a college president, or a retired military base commander. Someone with stature who is respected and has colleagues along the political spectrum lends gravitas to the effort.
Publicize and report. Invite your entire community using your print and digital fingers. And report on what is said.
Open the doors to “not the usual suspects.” The first to sign up will usually be those with a cause. That’s fine, but you seek those who don’t go to council or school board meetings regularly. You might invite some thoughtful letter writers, or ask local elected officials for some of their intelligent and involved constituents.
Choose the moderator carefully. Local community colleges or colleges can provide trained moderators who can ensure a flowing conversation that includes everyone who attends. Consider a time clock because no one wants to show up to a community forum for all that is dominated by a few.
Talk about what’s important. My community has a severe problem with heroin addiction among young people. The local weekly reported the program and organized forums. They gave a very loud voice to the families of these young people. What is serious where you live?
Celebrate what’s good. These do not always have to be serious. Each spring invite top scholars from local high schools and community colleges to talk about what’s next for them. What they see as their goals and challenges.
Avoid partisan issues when possible. It might be impossible to ignore issues such as cuts to social benefits programs (and maybe that ought to be a topic), but endeavor to avoid topics that clearly split along red and blue lines.
Listen. Really listen. Your staff ought to gather in the days after these public forums to talk about what they heard. Resist the urge to categorize people or dismiss their concerns.
Do something. Report back to your community what you are doing to do differently as a result of listening to their concerns. It might be a series, a new beat, a change in policy or simply more pointed and accurate coverage with new sources. But the community needs to know it’s been heard and action was taken.
Much of our industry was shocked to learn that millions of Americans voted for a political novice just because they thought the people they had been electing were not listening. Our industry should not be hard of hearing.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.