As a former newspaper editor and publisher who stepped down from the job but stayed in the area, I am regularly asked, “Do you miss the news business?”
I have a standard reply: “I miss the news, but not the business.” I cheer for my local newspaper and vigorously defend it from critics. And I daydream when I get calls such as this one from a community leader who asked: “How much money would it take to buy the local newspaper?” and “If we bought it, would you be the editor again?”
Never have I had the opportunity to turn back the clock. Nor am I convinced it will happen this time. But allow me to tell you how I answered the caller and how I have been thinking about those questions.
I have been out of the daily newspaper game for 12 years and have no simple solutions to the Gordian Knot that owners, publishers and editors face these days, but if wealthy investors handed me the keys to the kingdom, this is how I would do it.
First, there’d be a steely-eyed study and analysis of the audience tastes for local news and how they want it delivered. I wouldn’t eschew seven-day print delivery, but I would not demand it. Some have courageously started down this path, such as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s plan to distribute free iPads to readers.
Second, I’d hire developers who love news as much as I do, arm them with the market analysis, and let them create a mobile and desktop site that matched my community’s tastes. No off-the-shelf purchase for us or cannibalization of a national model, our digital site would look like where we live. I want the audience to think of our news model as uniquely local.
Third, I’d reshape the advertising model and rates to reflect the way my local economy works. Newspapers have not adapted their advertising models to the gig economy even though, in my community, as many as 1 in 6 new business licensees work from home, hire freelancers and offer business-to-business services. Networking continues to be a model for business growth for local businesses, but newspaper advertising does not touch this. My advertising model would contain a lot of consumer reviews and recommendations (even some that my advertisers might not like, but building an audience that finds your advertising credible is crucial.) My advertising model would look more like Wirecutter and less like Valassis Sunday inserts.
Fourth, I would build news coverage around topics that built loyal and deep followers. So much crime news drives clicks, but not loyalty. So much political coverage sends people to the sidelines wearing their team’s jerseys but does nothing to illuminate issues. So I’d drop the ideology and the cheap fixes and focus on the deeper topics that my community talks about: Can I afford a place to live? Can I get a better-paying and more meaningful job? What are my children learning in school? How are we taking care of the elderly and the marginalized? Is our justice system fair to all (including the police)? How should I spend my money and what services are valuable? When we covered crime, we would get into the “How did this happen?” and not focus on “What happened?”
Fifth, I would be the community convener—the town hall for the place where I live. I would want to be the (moderated) forum online and in person for the issues that my community talks about. Instead of letting them fire off half-cocked and uninformed “facts,” I’d moderate the discussion and try to bring reasonable people to reasonable conclusions (knowing that some will never meet that criteria). But I’d use the respected institutions in the community to help bring people together to discuss important solutions.
Sixth, I would practice transparency and fairness. I would show the community how we reported, who we talked to, what we tried to do and where we fell short. I’d open the books of the business to the community so they would know who was paying us and how we were spending the money.
Finally, I would carry forth a few traditional newspaper mainstays—weather, local obituaries and advice columns.
Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Last Tycoon” advised “There are no second acts in American lives,” but if you have a few extra million dollars lying around, this is how I’d try Act Two.
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.