The polarizing political year has brought several problematic aspects of the media to the forefront. Several newspapers have lost notable readerships, just because of a newspaper’s petty bias.
In truth, the future doesn’t look good for many periodicals. This doesn’t have to be. The great Decline of Newspapers is indeed an actual issue, and has been for nearly two decades. Sadly, it’s the small, or “local,” newspapers that suffer the greatest devastation..
If you go to a historic newspaper website, such as Newspapers.com, and examine papers from your area a century ago, there are many startling differences. Older papers showed obvious respect and fondness for their readers and their region. Simply put: they were fun. They were interesting to read, offered content not available elsewhere, and were genuinely interested in local goings-on. It was common to read folklore, articles of area history, trivia, and all manner of area news. While major news was syndicated, it was merely a fraction of the actual paper.
So, what do smaller, “local” papers need to do to fix the issues?
Assign Proper Blame
Blame should be properly assigned to be remedied. It probably isn’t the internet or the growing problems with illiteracy, as has been suggested before. Most newspapers offer electronic issues of their papers, that is an unlikely issue. It probably isn’t financial straits among readers or growing public apathy. They may be contributing factors, but aren’t your primary worry.
The issues more than likely arise because you have a bad office, lackadaisical reporting, or a worsening professional reputation. You may only employ writers who simply view the job as a stepping stone to reach greater positions elsewhere. You may syndicate the majority of your content, as opposed to writing it. Visitors to your newspaper’s website may be assaulted with countless banners, pop-ups, or other dubious advertising attempt.
Don’t be the restaurateur who blames their failure on everything, but their bad food. Obviously, there are deep and lingering issues in the media or newspapers wouldn’t be seeing such tremendous damage. Acknowledge it. Accept it. Move on. Try to fix what is broken.
Stop Shirking Your Responsibilities
Don’t rely on a parent corporation to run your newspaper. Your region is what makes your paper unique. Don’t neglect your greatest asset. Don’t do something just because other newspapers are doing it. Stop looking only to local leaders for ideas, and look to your readership. That is your largest subscriber base. Open a news hotline. Open a community event hotline. Invite your readers to participate daily, not just on special occasions.
Local Papers Should Be LOCAL
It seems like a given, but apparently many papers seem to have lost the meaning. It should be reiterated. Your writers should be local. The majority of your stories should be local. Running the same content as 100,000 of your competitors is not reporting. Why would readers pay for that? Aggregating or syndication services, such as the Associated Press or Reuters, should only be used in matters of national importance or significance. They should not be a substitute for actual reporting. Above all, you should be capable of discussing food, sports, basic book reviews, and promoting the arts without even more syndication. You should be able to discuss your region’s history and culture without a team of specialists from the other side of the nation. No observer will ever know more about your area, or your culture, than your own people.
Hire Local Writers
This issue brings several problems for newspapers. First, local people have friends and family in the region. People who care about the region. People who will subscribe. Bringing in writers who are unfamiliar with the region, with the people, and with the local culture is a detriment. The famous adage is valid: “write what you know.” Outsourcing jobs brings about the sense that people in your area aren’t “good enough” to work in your office. That you don’t think they’re intelligent enough or talented enough to do anything outside janitorial work or manual labor. Public hostility is poison to your publication.
Open your doors to local writers who may refresh our stagnating publication with new voices and ideas, not just to those who have academic accolades. Ray Bradbury, Truman Capote, William Faulkner, and H.G. Wells were not college graduates. They are but a few in a long list of classic authors who never held college diplomas. Let the writers’ skills and experience do the talking instead.
Second, many “local” newspapers have handicapped themselves into bankruptcy by implementing hiring practices that are just asinine. For example, many papers only hire writers with college degrees, especially in areas where most people don’t have them. So that means business administrators and environmental science graduates are doing basic reporting. You can guess what happens. They work in a field they have little training for, and little desire to improve in. When the novelty wears away, you’ll be left with apathetic writers who create bad headlines and bad writing, who don’t write with passion, but with the mere expectation of a paycheck.
Another issue is often outsourcing the hiring process. Local papers should have the resources to take their own applications and interview their own people, without the issues from a larger company. Every technical error on a parent company’s website becomes your technical error. They may not fix it until the main office has need for it, no matter what the delay does to your office. They may also be filtering out viable, local candidates for not meeting the journalistic requirements elsewhere.
Hiring the wrong people broadcasts a tremendous disrespect for your publication, your area, and your readership. Reading is indeed taught, but professional writing is not. You must have an innate passion to do it properly on a daily basis.
Promote Local Artists
You have the platform. You have the resources. Feature local artists in every medium and every genre. “Local” isn’t a bad word. Local artists will help you as much as you help them, so stop the ridiculous taboo. They are just as much a professional, and can help promote your area, as anyone who doesn’t live there.
If you don’t “roll out the red carpet,” for local artists, don’t do it for someone from elsewhere because they want to exploit your region for profit. Local artists create in your region, promote your region, and live in your region every single day. Work together. Don’t cater to non-residents who only have a regional interest when they get paid for it. Mention it and move on. Don’t run full-page spreads and flaunt your biases because your subscribers will ask why you don’t do that for everyone.
Don’t Piss Your Readers Off
Half of your base of subscribers will have different political and social leanings than you do. Act it. You are running a newspaper, not a propaganda mill. Subscribers pay for your reporting, not your opinion. Your job isn’t to teach, persuade, or “convert” your readers. Stop endorsing. Stop maligning. Just report the damned news. Don’t take sides. Never believe controversy will help your subscriber base in any way. Bad publicity works for actors, not professionals.
Use Local Content
Utilize some creativity. This should be another “given.” Let local authors, booksellers, and publishers review books in exchange for promotion. Host competitions for local eateries. Historians can supply you with more content than you’ll ever have need for. Local storytellers can write their stories down. Get involved and be creative. Local photographers and graphic designers could help with any such needs, in exchange for a stipend, or just promotion.
There are a plethora of cuts, alterations, and changes you can make that will get your subscriber base back to where it should be. Showcase chapters of original fiction, or even chapters from classic works in literature. Exactly. No. Other. Publication. Does. It. That’s the point. Originality, innovation, and perseverance has kept more papers in business than any other resource.
Has the great age of the mighty newspaper passed us by? Only time will tell. But, unless smaller publications actually make changes and improve their community relations, the death knell has already tolled.