This is the second in a series of 10 posts on how to strengthen local newspapers in the face of the economic meltdown and the societal shift to the Web.
2. Establish a clear and credible public service mission. Newspapers tout their watchdog role, but if you evaluate the percentage of their expenses dedicated to this function, the budgetary reality would undermine the claim in many, if not most, cases. If newspapers are going to follow a membership model, as I believe they should (see recommendation #1), there has to be a reason to join. Today the most common complaint is how thin many newspapers have become. Even if unfair, the belief that there’s “nothing to read” in many newspapers is widespread. The No. 1 reason to support a local newspaper should be because it’s an independent watchdog dedicated to holding government and other powerful institutions accountable and to enabling citizens to participate fully in our democracy. Ultimately, it’s not how much there is to read that matters. What matters is whether the newspaper makes a difference in the lives of its readers and its community.
If newspapers do this, the foundation of every one of its communications with the public can be this simple truth: that the newspaper, in tandem with concerned members of the community, is performing an essential function – as essential as water, power and roads. Without the newspaper, people must know, the community would be that much poorer. Today, in some cases, for perhaps understandable reasons, newspapers are not able to forcefully make that claim.
Here are some concrete steps:
• Strip down the newsroom and start over with this mission in mind. Reconstruct the entire news operation on all platforms to make sure the newsroom has this mission at its heart. This will be difficult. Many internally will ask, ‘Well, how can we stop doing this?’ Or, ‘How can we stop doing that?’ The answer is if newspapers don’t perform their central function well, nothing else will matter. If it’s not clear by now that things have to change, the battle may be lost anyway.
• Communicate to the public that this is the No. 1 priority of the newspaper and tell the community every time the newspaper helps keep politicians and others honest or makes government transparent.
• Invite the community to participate in this central endeavor. Newspapers shouldn’t just be looking for breaking news tips or comments from their readers. They should be asking for readers’ help on their most important work and offering others a platform to perform the same function. This includes sharing the best work of other news organizations on their own Web site, if anything just to reinforce the value of this work and to help measure the performance of the local paper.
• Newspapers should champion the public’s right to know, access to open records and the importance of public meetings in symposiums and other forums.
Previous: 1. Start with the customers: Readers and advertisers.
Next: 3. Realign the internal operations of local newspaper companies to make marketing, advertising and editorial partners every step of the way.