A friend of mine works at a small, corporate chain-owned U.S. daily newspaper that is down to two editors, one news reporter and one sports reporter. This newsroom is responsible for a print edition that still publishes seven days a week, a weekly newspaper, various special sections, and the publication’s breaking online news and social media presence. Its staff of four was a staff of 10 just two years ago, 15 three years ago and 25 six years ago.
This newspaper, and a frightening number of others, will likely be shut down within the next few years after profits from legacy preprint business (and extremely low content overhead) are squeezed out before remaining subscribers and advertisers die or abandon the product. Or maybe it will continue to operate as some type of zombie publication—no meaningful local newsroom presence or coverage, but reanimated with out-of-town wire news as part of a corporate distribution network.
But for companies who genuinely want to be in markets like this for the long-term, the newsroom staff who remain, and the communities they serve, there has to be an alternative.
Does a newsroom with one reporter covering a vibrant collection of communities continue to cover school board and city council meetings, press conferences, breaking news? Wouldn’t that be kind of random if there are a dozen other equally important things he or she could have covered that day that the newspaper won’t get to?
First consider the mission. “Informing” readers would be among the first things listed in a newspaper’s mission statement. Providing effective ways for local businesses to find and connect with customers, certainly. And perhaps being an outlet that brings people and information together to help the community grapple with problems and opportunities that affect quality of life.
How would you deploy staff if you were starting from scratch with that mission, with the resources you have today instead of the phantom limb of the size staff you used to have? Would you be covering local sports at all? Would you send a reporter to the press conference that will be attended by three or four other media outlets as well, or the school board meeting that citizens can watch televised on local access cable?
Clearly, investigative and enterprise reporting could be crucial—uncovering information the public can’t easily access or discover on its own, and drawing meaningful connections between available pieces of information that they can’t easily make.
But stenography, especially when other media outlets are being stenographers of the same event or information, squanders your shrunken remaining resources.
What if newsrooms focused on the bigger picture of helping readers access information instead of scrambling to randomly cover a fraction of the traditional “this happened today” news stories they used to report?
If a newspaper can only cover two of the 20 stories it should be covering in a given day, new strategies for “informing” readers need to be pondered.
Why not embrace, wholeheartedly, the organization’s role as a watchdog and advocate for open government and access to public records? Your newsroom can’t cover every meeting or report on every local school budget, but it could work to assure that meetings are properly noticed (and videotaped, perhaps), minutes are taken and posted, public officials’ emails on important topics are promptly available to residents who request them, and that detailed, line-by-line local budget and spending information is posted on the town’s website.
The integrity and enforcement (and improvement and expansion) of the Freedom of Information Act shouldn’t just be considered important to your work as a journalist. It would be your work in this scenario.
On a parallel track, newsrooms should be getting better at the ability to present and analyze the floodgates of available information and data that would result from that kind of advocacy around improved government transparency (and information technology). And pursuing community engagement initiatives that train readers to be advocates for access to this information and intelligent consumers of it.
If the mission is to inform, but resources are drastically different than 10, five or even two years ago, the newsroom of the near future should include lawyers, open government advocates, data specialists and educators in some of the slots previously held by editors and reporters.
Empower your readership to be informed through big gains in the public’s right to know and ability to consume data, and then help them make sense of it with smart analysis and enterprise.
Matt DeRienzo is a newsroom consultant and a former editor and publisher with Digital First Media. He teaches journalism at Quinnipiac University and the University of New Haven in Connecticut, and is interim executive director of LION Publishers, a trade organization that represents local independent online news publishers.