Industry Insight: Shrinking Newsrooms Can Fulfill Mission to Inform with Shift to FOIA Advocacy

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

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.

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9 thoughts on “Industry Insight: Shrinking Newsrooms Can Fulfill Mission to Inform with Shift to FOIA Advocacy

  • June 20, 2016 at 5:28 am

    I’m a journalist for a weekly that has resources shrinking daily, and prior to that freelanced for a competing weekly. To bring the important news to the public I do rely more and more on contacts supplying me with summaries of events and sometimes photos (if I know they can get a good shot), so I can concentrate on local issues. I’ve given up a lot of former coverage of town halls, etc. But your comment about “lawyers, open government advocates, data specialists and educators” partially replacing editorial staff is way off base. The people you mentioned usually cannot write well, and are often in love with their own words. They are frequently more trouble to work with than they are worth and editing to CP Style takes as long as writing the piece would have. Writing news is a real skill, as is taking a photo that tells a story. If publications want to improve their investigative journalism, asking the professions you mentioned for information and opinions is helpful, but the story still has to be written by the editorial staff–at least if you want anyone to read it.

    • June 20, 2016 at 8:26 am

      Point, in part, was that newsrooms should think of themselves as providing a service that goes beyond written word accounts of the news. In this case, whether a lawyer could sit down and write an article would be beside the point, because her work would be to win access to information for the public, not to write about it.

  • June 20, 2016 at 6:39 am

    Interesting, but I see a couple of problems with this path. First, most people won’t have the time, energy, motivation and boldness to go chasing and identifying local news. That’s the function of the newspaper. If a paper in skeleton form no longer can handle it, it should shut down or downgrade to the level of free shopper (which usually does provide some useful community bulletin board-type of information.).
    Secondly FOIA and its state-level counterparts could be endangered species as we move deeper into the Surveillance State. We know there already are strong forces at the federal level — both Republican and Democrat — to hide or distort government information. And FOIA provides very little access to any private-sector information. Whistleblowers and hackers, powered by the Internet, may provide a partial substitute for a newspaper on specific issues, but they won’t answer the general question of “What’s going on in Altoona?” Maybe next-generation Google (or a competitor) will fill the vacuum for community news. Or maybe the public will be content with reality TV, celebrity gossip and photos of cute cats.

  • June 20, 2016 at 9:15 am

    The general readership of any newspaper, big or small, is lazy and disinterested in most all topics except crime, hard news, local sports and and stuff like “Spring Break 2016”. The proof is in the newspaper hit counts. High school proms and local society events draw less, but still significant numbers of hits on the ol’ website.
    The only folks interested in FOI issues are the dogs already in the fight, so posting links to these topics will draw little attention, attract few advertisers, and generally collect dust.
    It seems to me, after 35-plus years in the newsroom, that if this information is important and needs to get to the readers, the only ones who will wake them up to read about it all will be The Reporters.
    Basically, unless it involves sewage bubbling up in their living rooms, the readers just don’t care.

  • June 20, 2016 at 10:40 am

    Hello Matt…

    Great piece

    I agree the solution is in evolution of the newspaper’s philosophy. Like any business, when the expense model of the business changes…the entire business model must evolve. Too often, we just try to do more with less. We end up doing it poorly and eventually fail to have the opportunity to do it at all.

    There is a solution….you just have to right size more than just the staff in the particular market. The correct solution is also, in my opinion, unique to the market depending on interests. Cookie cutter solutions are rarely long term ways to solve anything.

  • June 20, 2016 at 9:48 pm

    Interesting points. What stands out most for me is, if you were starting from scratch would you still be utilizing your staff the same way? We are close to your example, down to one editor, one half time reporter (me) and one sports editor for our five-day-a-week newspaper. It feels crazy, the way those few staff hours are used. Trouble is, we have no manager, no one to think about this and start a discussion about remaining relevant and useful to our community. When the bosses left, the positions just disappeared. It’s tough! Thank you for your thoughts.

    • June 21, 2016 at 10:51 am

      Ugh! Unfortunately, yours is a familiar scenario. It’s a crisis that’s not been explored fully by a media press that tends to focus on the latest thing happening with national “it” publications (buzzfeed, vox, gawker, etc.) and not local news, where the journalism most vital to our democracy is taking place.

  • June 22, 2016 at 7:05 am

    I agree with the premise that we in the news media need to all stop chasing the same stories and focus on unique content that adds value to the communities we serve. When I hear another news media covered some story, my attitude is “great! That means the story has been covered and we don’t need to do it!” Meaning, we can use the resources elsewhere to uncover more news that otherwise wouldn’t get attention.

    The issue I have is that FOIA requests and the First Amendment is getting trampled by governments. They use delaying tactics (sometimes years), and try to force expensive fees to fulfill the requests. I wrote this article a short while ago that got a lot of attention at the time, but it’s worth a look on Standing Up for The First Amendment in a digital age:


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