How did we get to a point where the size of the audience for many local newspapers is bigger than ever thanks to digital platforms, while the public perception of their reach and impact is at an all-time low?
Twenty-five years of doom and gloom about the internet killing your business will certainly affect a reputation. So will an endless cycle of newsroom cuts, layers of outsourcing in the quest of cheaper customer service and delivery expenses, smaller and thinner editions, and simply providing less local news coverage than before.
Yet in the “glory days,” the kind of instantaneous coverage of breaking news events that’s routine now would have been unthinkable. More readers than we have had at any point in our history turn to newspaper web and mobile sites today with the expectation to learn almost immediately what was up with the sirens they heard or the road that was closed. If the mayor resigns, they expect (and usually get) “the real story” behind it within hours. Newsrooms have adjusted to readers’ expectations of an accelerated online news cycle by harnessing digital tools and honing real-time investigative reporting skills.
Forced to adjust to a world where they can no longer be (and I’d argue, no longer need to be) the stenographer of every routine going-on in a community, the best newspapers are producing investigative reporting that was actually pretty rare for a local newspaper back in the glory days.
A new study by Duke University professors Jessica Mahone and Philip Napoli shows that newspapers produce more local journalism, and more local journalism that serves “critical information needs,” than any other source. “The results show, fairly convincingly, that despite the economic hardships that local newspapers have endured, they remain, by far, the most significant providers of journalism in their communities,” they wrote in a summary for Nieman Lab.
So, what to do about the average community member whose perception is, “I thought they went out of business,” or “They don’t even have staff in our town anymore?”
The answer could lie in a marketing effort that combines new forms of digital engagement and a return to some really old school methods.
For example, newspapers used to have a mini billboard on every street corner in the form of coin racks and a similar presence in stores. Offices with prominent branding occupied prime downtown locations. Why wouldn’t someone perceive that a newspaper had declined or disappeared as that kind of visibility has disappeared?
Traditional billboard, radio and television advertising at a new product launch kind of level could put at least a dent in that perception.
A social media strategy focused on listening and engagement, not just promoting stories, can show a community that a newspaper has “feet on the ground.” In-person events and ensuring that staff members are active in local nonprofit, school and business efforts show that journalists are not just in the community, but of the community.
If the value proposition of your content has changed from blanket coverage local matters to focused accountability journalism that has impact, the marketing message should reflect it. Editors and reporters have an impact and move on quickly to the next thing. There’s rarely “marketing brain” there. Someone needs to make sure that you’re touting success and painting a clear picture of mission and results. This story led to this change for the community—improving public health, saving taxpayers money, protecting vulnerable people from some threat.
Transparency about the process can humanize your effort, build trust and provide a look at your investment in the community. Details about staff time, costs and skills required to uncover, verify and report on information vital to the community.
Finally, money. While you can incorporate engagement and a transparency message into existing news coverage and social media efforts with existing staff, newspapers won’t accomplish a transformational change in public perception without putting significant dollars behind the effort.
Newspapers are accepting double-digit losses in advertising and stagnation on subscription efforts, without questioning the fact their marketing staffing and budget are at or near zero. It’s an entirely avoidable time bomb for the industry.
Matt DeRienzo has worked in journalism as a reporter, editor, publisher, corporate director of news for 25 years, including most recently as vice president of news and digital content at Hearst's Connecticut newspapers, and previously serving as the first full-time executive director of LION Publishers, a national nonprofit that supports the publishers of local independent online news organizations.