In their fervor to go local, local, local, and do it now, now, now, some metro dailies have confused longtime readers by suddenly banishing from the front page stories about Iraq or the presidential campaign, and replacing them with spreads about a controversy among parents at an elementary school or the heartwarming story of a stranger’s kidney donation to a sick child.
But the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch has its own definition of local ? and it can include the national and international news that the Internet has supposedly made nothing but a commodity.
“We define local news as topics that people are talking about,” says Times-Dispatch President and Publisher Thomas A. Silvestri. “So presidential politics can become local issues. Affordable housing is a classic case of a national issue becoming local. And we have so many troops from our state going to Iraq or Afghanistan, it becomes a local issue.”
That explains why, when the Times- Dispatch holds one of its “Public Square” community discussions, the topics can be immigration, the state of the James River, or the city of Richmond’s proposal to win back a departed minor-league baseball team with a new ballpark located off the Interstate ? as well as “celebrities gone wild.” The newspaper has held 19 of these Public Square discussions since deciding in 2005 to position the paper as a community leader.
In addition, the paper’s editors and reporters have hosted eight News Roundtables to hear criticism, observations, and recommendations about its coverage. That’s on top of the monthly Listening Tour, when Silvestri and other top executives and editors visit one of its 20 core communities to get to better know newsmakers and readers.
The payoff for the paper ? in addition to the launching of a couple of niche products that were first suggested by Listening Tour audiences ? has been increased goodwill, a better reputation, and more credibility among the community.
“You’d think, our being newspapers, that people would know we’re involved in the community,” says Silvestri, but the paper has learned there’s no substitute for showing up. People have thanked him for holding Public Squares they didn’t even attend in appreciation, Silvestri believes, of the paper listening to what ordinary people have to say.
“I’ve been amazed and so heartened by how the community has embraced this,” he says. “Some of the most poignant observations are made by people who are self- acknowledged non-public speakers ? but they have something to say.
“Newsmakers make headlines,” he adds, “but the people in the community, they’ve got to have their voices heard, too.”