When’s the last time you heard the words “research and development” in connection with the newspaper industry?
Yes, there have been noble efforts by outside media think tanks and associations –the American Press Institute’s Newspaper Next, for example, which was wholesale ignored by the industry after its release a decade ago.
But “research” is not something that would be, or maybe still is, mentioned at a newspaper’s annual budget meeting.
Publishers who either don’t have the resources of a large company, or the attention of the large company they are part of, look at missed R&D opportunities around technology and distribution, and feel so far behind they give up.
But there is a place where any local newspaper can start, regardless of size and resources.
Conduct a “community information needs assessment” of your coverage area. Start with a single community if that helps you get your arms around it.
Inventory every source of local news and information serving that community, including what your own newsroom provides. Daily newspapers, weekly newspapers, TV, radio, local online news sites, for sure, but also look at Facebook groups organized by community or niche topic, influential social media accounts, Reddit threads, Craigslist, church bulletins, local access cable TV, and information being published directly on websites and social media by local governments, school districts, businesses and nonprofits.
Gaining a fuller picture of the local news ecosystem that exists apart from your news organization will help focus the role that you should play in it. Maybe critical pieces of local news and information are out there, but fragmented and hard to find. Someone with editors and brand awareness could play the role of curator and facilitator.
Examine the demographic makeup of the community (the whole community, not just “your audience”), and attempt to cross-tab those information sources by segment of people. How are first-generation immigrants, for example, finding ways to access the information they need to assimilate and/or maintain a sense of community with each other?
Ask the community what is missing. Pay particular attention to people who have been traditionally under-served by legacy media. What are the information needs of a heroin addict, for example?
What worries parents the most? What frustrates commuters? How easy is it to do a Google or social media search and find information about topics important to them that is timely and complete?
What are the information needs of these people in an emergency situation—a hurricane, blizzard, or public safety crisis? Is the community equipped to provide information quickly and easily on evacuation routes, emergency communications, shelter? Does your newsroom have a plan?
The answers to these questions—and even the process of asking them—could provide a blueprint for community engagement, user experience and customer relationships. It’s about helping solve the information problems of your community, and that will shift your organization from a mostly one-way mass media outlet to a service business. You’ll find numerous opportunities for entrepreneurship.
You’ll find that some key information needs in your community revolve around commerce and leisure, and there are huge opportunities in connecting people with content and advertising (and advertising that is content) that helps inform the decisions they need to make about spending money.
And finally, part of this research should address what categories of news and information are over-served. If you are the fourth or fifth news outlet covering the same story, in the same or a marginally different way, can you shift those resources to fill some of the gaps?
Understanding and adjusting your role in the local news ecosystem has to put partnerships over competitive zeal. In Charlottesville, Virginia, for example, the local daily newspaper runs content from a nonprofit online news site, Charlottesville Tomorrow, in its print edition, and has ceded entire areas of local coverage to them. By not duplicating this effort, they have resources to pursue news coverage that the community wouldn’t otherwise have.
You don’t have to hire an expensive consultant or research firm to do this kind of R&D, although it might be a project that could involve a local journalism class or interns. Your own editors, reporters and sales reps are best equipped to ask these questions and do this research. You just have to decide, as an organization, that it’s important enough.
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.