Julius Gius built his capital as an editor not on muckraking coverage or scathing editorials, but as the trusted conscience of his community who put the good of everyone ahead of any one individual.
I had been on the job as his replacement in Ventura County, Calif., for about 20 minutes when someone told me the story of how two large non-profits were at war in the community—a battle that would likely mean the end of both organizations. Julius’ editorials and diplomacy got the two groups to drop their swords and combine into one group that thrives to this day. He saved the Salvation Army during a year when they could not ring bells in front of department stores because of a pending lawsuit, and started a “Bellringer” campaign in the newspaper, another tradition that survives to this day. And there were more.
He created an indelible bond between news institution and community. Too many newspapers these days have backed away from creating that bond. That’s wrong. In an age of fractured media and an economic model that relies on subscriptions, it is more important than ever to give people a reason to trust you.
Some will argue that our role is an observer. That we report news, we don’t make it. Let’s be clear. I am not suggesting the newspaper convene the search for the next city manager or school superintendent. Many issues require our detachment and even-handed reporting.
But our communities need more than an official transcript of local government. At times, they need a firm, but benevolent friend.
This suggestion coming from a retired editor and publisher might seem unrealistic. I don’t have to deal with declining circulation and ad revenue, with demands from corporate lords to do more with less. I would suggest, however, that creating ties to the community does not have to cost a lot of money.
The good news is that in every community there are non-profit organizations with deep ties in your community that can help. In fact, now that I am “on the other side,” I realize just how crucial a partnership with the local newspaper can be to the success of a non-profit. (This is not to suggest that non-profits should escape scrutiny from your reporting either.)
For example, newspapers are often criticized for creating a negative impression of young people and ethnic minorities. There are dozens of ways to honor the young people in the community—from outstanding scholars to stand-out athletes—who can be honored in pages and ceremonies sponsored by the newspaper. Outstanding teachers ought to be in a Hall of Fame created by your newspaper.
This does not apply only to “soft news.”
Your colleagues have put such an inscrutable spotlight on community issues such as drunk driving or gang violence that community members have organized marches to the state capitol. That is how you help your community—by highlighting its flaws and helping fix them.
During disasters, newspapers can unite communities. When fires raged through Northern California’s wine country and thousands packed shelters where there was little electricity and sketchy Internet connections, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat delivered 3,000 papers a day for free to those in the shelters. The Los Angeles Times recently profiled how that relatively small staff jumped into coverage and help within its community because this was their community. The newspaper also started a fund (with complete transparency on receipts and expenditures) that has raised $26.8 million that goes directly to fire victims. They built trust.
And if you should need help from your community in determining what is really important to them, new technology such as GroundSource, the brainchild of Andrew Haeg , helps you listen to your community. Writing for the Nieman Lab, Haeg bemoaned the journalists’ tendency to remain aloof from the people who live where they live. Increasingly, he writes, consumers “expect personalization and localization in all of their online commerce.”
When it comes to local newspapers, they expect an institution that knows their community down to its neighborhoods and its history.
The newspaper model is moving slowly away from massive advertising dollars and toward a subscription model. Those consumers expect to build a trust with those journalists—a trust embellished by the belief that “those people really know this community and they care.”
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.