“The economy, stupid,” was James Carville’s celebrated advice to simplify the presidential campaign of Bill Clinton in 1992. “Local news, editor” would be an appropriate mantra for newsrooms in 2020.
Our industry’s mind space is occupied by questions about delivery, bundling and technology. Those are crucial questions. But whatever those decisions are, it’s the content we deliver that determines whether local journalism thrives.
It’s very simple. People want to read news that’s interesting. News that relates to the important topics in their lives.
Journalist must regularly ask themselves, “Are we reporting the news that is most interesting to our readers, or are we following the formula we’ve followed for decades?”
When I talk to “real people” (those not involved in journalism classify as “real people”) these are some of the issues on their minds that I believe newsrooms scarcely report on:
Internet Security and Privacy: Particularly how it relates to children. Any reader with children or grandchildren old enough to operate a smartphone is vitally interested in keeping children safe while using the internet or apps. They are always concerned about predators, but beyond that, companies are collecting data about our children and marketing products to them in subtle and dangerous ways. This is a story easily localized by examining school district policies on technology usage and whether it is actually followed on campuses or sloughed off. Ask whether your local Boys and Girls Club is more vigilant about this than the school.
This is an opportunity to engage readers by holding online forums with local experts and then repurposing those forums into advice columns.
Generation Envy: The question that guarantees employment for economists and sociologists is this—Will this generation be worse off than the previous one? This is a local story that can be examined through these lenses.
Housing: In so many coastal states and in large cities, the cost of housing well exceeds the recommended 30 percent of income guideline. For many young people, the dream of home ownership is merely a fantasy. How do young people make it when the gap between salaries and rents is huge? In addition, the homeless problem often relates to the lack of affordable building decisions made by local agencies.
Employment: There is substantial debate over how many times a person will change jobs, but there is no question that employment is less secure in an age when companies place “investor returns” as their top priority. Yet, our local job markets seem to get coverage only when there is a substantial layoff or new employer moving to the area. Employment is more subtle. Wages and working conditions are readable stories for everyone considering a new job—and isn’t that most readers?
Finance: It’s wrong-headed for many news organizations to turn this coverage over to a 60-something syndicated personal finance columnist. This is where the “OK, Boomer” memes might have started. Advice about pensions and debate over Social Security mean little to young readers. Finance for them is about getting value for what they spend.
Consumerism: Do you know what most people are experts at? Giving advice and opinions. Ask one. They can tell you the best streaming service. The best or worst dentist. The best place for craft beer. Whether the latest iPhone is worth all that money. There are news stories in the best and worst in our communities (and please do not leave this up to cunning locals who will stuff the ballot box in the annual “Best Of” poll that isn’t nearly a poll. Do some real reporting.)
Local Myths and Facts: Every community has local legends repeated so often you would swear they are true. Why not cover these? In my community there is a rumor that a former mental hospital was the catalyst for The Eagles “Hotel California.” It’s not. But the stories about what’s legend and what’s truth in your community will snare readers.
The worst sin of newspapering is boring your readers to death. The way to stay alive is to report stories that will have them talking.
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.