My Plan for the Seattle PI (Part II)

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has been put up for sale by the Hearst Corporation.  If it does not find a buyer in 60 days (56 days and counting…) — most analysts believe it won’t — the paper will cease production.  This week, I am outlining my plan for how to save the Seattle PI, return it to profitability, and improve the quality of the journalistic product that readers receive.

Today, a focus on More and Better Local News Content.

The job of a local newspaper is to cover local issues. A renewed focus on issues that impact the local community will give news consumers in Seattle, and wherever local papers are struggling, a reason to read again.

First, let’s consider the role of newspapers.  In December, James Surowiecki wrote in the New Yorker about the financial troubles of the newspaper industry, comparing it to the struggles the railroad industry at the turn of the 20th century.  He wrote:

“Newspaper readership has been slowly dropping for decades—as a percentage of the population, newspapers have about half as many subscribers as they did four decades ago—but the Internet helped turn that slow puncture into a blowout. Papers now seem to be the equivalent of the railroads at the start of the twentieth century—a once-great business eclipsed by a new technology. In a famous 1960 article called “Marketing Myopia,” Theodore Levitt held up the railroads as a quintessential example of companies’ inability to adapt to changing circumstances. Levitt argued that a focus on products rather than on customers led the companies to misunderstand their core business. Had the bosses realized that they were in the transportation business, rather than the railroad business, they could have moved into trucking and air transport, rather than letting other companies dominate. By extension, many argue that if newspapers had understood they were in the information business, rather than the print business, they would have adapted more quickly and more successfully to the Net.”

Not only are local newspapers like the Seattle PI in the information business, they are in the local information business.  As technology spreads and our globe becomes increasingly connected, it is easier to get the news from around the world, at least on the major events, than ever before.  Hundreds of reporters cover the President.  Dozens of outlets report live from hotspots around the world.  And increasingly, there are bloggers and citizen reporters who are adding their own style of coverage as well.  But only a small group of news organizations focus on what people care most about, and have the greatest impact on their lives — what happens right around the corner.

Now, ask yourself: what makes local news coverage so important?  Local news is unique… it only exists in your community.  And there is no shortage of local topics to cover — government and politics, business, education, transportation, sports, culture, and so on.  However, most newspapers cover only a few issues — devote maybe a page or two to local news.  By comparison, far more of the real estate on the front pages of newspapers all across the country are dominated by national and international stories, often taken from wire services or re-purposed from national newspapers.

If you are a national newspaper, like the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, your job is to cover and put the national and international issues in context for everyone.  Readers know that, and increasingly they are going directly to the source (online) to read that story for themselves.  Local newspapers shouldn’t try to compete, or replicate what those national papers are doing — they can leave the national papers to cover those issues and instead spend their time and energy doing something the national papers can’t (or won’t) — devote energy to creating good, in-depth local content.

I am not suggesting local newspapers should ignore national or international issues.  Quite the opposite.  Those issues are interesting to readers also.  But publishing an article that can also be found in the New York Times, which a reader can go and find online (and will, because they rarely rely on just one source for their news content anymore) doesn’t work.  What does work is adding an extra layer of insight, or local focus, to a major national or international story.  Many local newspapers are already doing this — asking how the conflict in Gaza is viewed by local residents, or the economy is impacting local business — but only about a handful of issues.  Moreover, it is, in fact, for your readers to go elsewhere for certain types of news — because you can’t do everything, well, all the time.

The quality of your content is, of course, key.  It is not enough to simply increase the amount of local coverage, you also have to make it interesting.  If you don’t, nobody will read it.  For local news coverage to satisfy the interests of readers, the issues must be addressed in depth, and with the appropriate analysis or insight — or as Washington Post editor Marcus Brauchli described it once: “closely, well, and definitely.”

Creating good, in-depth coverage isn’t, or shouldn’t be, very difficult.  There are hundreds of companies, schools, government and political officials, sports teams, citizen groups, and others in every community — what are they doing and why is it important?  Your editors and reporters are from the community, what interests them, what are they hearing from their network of friends and family is important?  If you are unsure about what will be most interesting to your readers, ask your readers.  That’s what the Palladium-Item newspapers in Richmond, Indiana did recently.

Here is how one reader, Chris Hardie, responded:

“For me, a good local news story is one that reflects the things that are happening and the experiences people are having in and around our city and county. For it truly to reflect a local point of view, the story should include the perspectives, thoughts and emotions of local people, and preferably be written by someone who has a local context for (even, dare I say, a personal investment in) why those things might matter.

If it’s a story about a local event, the story should give some insight into why the event happened, who made it happen, who it affected, and what it means for the future.

If it’s about something good that happened, the story should reflect the resources and time and energy that went into making that good thing happen, who benefits from it, and how it can be built upon or replicated in the future (especially if we as a larger community have some opportunity we should seize).

If it’s about something bad that happened, the story should reflect the context that led to that thing happening, who was in a position to create a different outcome, who will be impacted by it, and who is in a position to prevent it from happening again (especially if we as a larger community have some responsibility to bear).”

Each community is different, so the local news needs and standards will vary.  What is known, and has been for a while, is that local news is what readers want most.  Newspapers provide a lot of local coverage, but not enough.  It should be their primary, if not exclusive focus.  Trust me, there is more than enough to fill several sections each day (and that does not include things like weather and obituaries, which are necessary and often take up a lot of space), and local readers will spend more time reading and sharing local information than anything else.  That can lead to increased circulation (or online traffic), advertising potential and more.

More tomorrow.

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