The real promise of newspapers: Leadership
Struggling urban dailies could learn a thing or two from small papers
July 19, 2016
By the editors of Media Life
This article is part of a Media Life series “Reinventing the American Newspaper.” Click here to read other stories in the series.
For all the troubles they face, and they are legion, newspapers still enjoy what matters the most for any medium: the finest of audiences. People who read newspapers are the best-educated and most affluent of any community. They have the deepest roots. They vote, they sit on school boards, they own businesses and pay taxes.
And this remains so even after years of staff cuts at dailies around the country.
Papers all around the country are looking for ways to reinvent themselves in the face of the new and brutal economics of publishing. They’re bringing in consultants. They’re turning to think tanks.
Where they ought to be looking for inspiration and example is under their very noses, to America’s small papers, those with circulations of 10,000 to 20,000.
These papers have fared far better economically, and they’ve done so by holding onto and building upon the loyalty and support of their readers.
They are one with their communities. They are their communities.
They cover the school board meetings and the parades, as you’d expect, but they also show real leadership in their communities, whether it’s getting behind a food drive for the poor or puzzling through a complex zoning issue for readers. They are about their readers.
The failing of so many larger dailies is that they are not about their readers. They may cover the school board meeting, but then again they may not. They do not cover parades (parades are hokey, you see–Ditto for briefs about Johnny making Eagle Scout).
Their front pages are dominated by national or international news, with maybe a local story or two below the fold. Then it’s pages of wire stories. Local news is a skim-over of press releases from city hall and the state capital, with perhaps a light feature on the latest teen craze at the mall.
On the editorial page we find syndicated columnists. If there’s actually an editorial writer left on staff, we’re apt to find a rant for or against one of the following: the death penalty, same-sex marriage, prayer in school, gun control, Afghanistan, single-payer healthcare, and the importance of the Fourth of July or Mother’s Day. Some of the editorials are heart-felt.
The editor of the paper—let’s call him Joe–is on the job three months, having been transferred in by headquarters from a similar-size paper in the chain. The city editor arrived a year earlier.
For story ideas, the paper’s editors look forward to the various editors’ conferences they faithfully attend throughout the year to see what other papers are doing.
We should note, they do not turn to their readers for stories. Editors tell readers what’s going on, not vice versa. That’s not how things work at big papers.
We should also note, the paper used to have a big office right on Broad Street, down the street from city hall, but 10 years ago it moved everything to the suburbs. Editors didn’t have to drive as far to work and parking was easier. Besides, they said at the time, that’s where our readers live, should we ever meet any of them.
In the best of all worlds, and for the good of the newspaper industry, these now-struggling mid-market dailies would open themselves up to learning from their smaller cousins.
They might learn what it means to exhibit real leadership in their communities.
But the chance of any of that happening would seem slight.
A big reason is that those struggling papers are deeply rooted in their ways, the ways of chains and absentee ownership. Many chains have operated this way for decades, managing from afar, taking the money out, cycling through editors and publishers. They know no other way.
If anything, the reverse may well happen.
For many years, smaller papers tended to be independently owned, but of late many, if not most, have been bought up by chains. Fewer and fewer independents are left.
The issue may well turn out to be not whether smaller papers can serve to inspire their larger cousins but whether they themselves can survive, avoiding their own demise under chain ownership.
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