Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Newspapers Adapting to the Digital Age

With each issue, my mother reads the newspaper cover to cover. She'll highlight parts my father would be interested in. When they are done with the paper, she saves it until my cousin visits and gives it to her.

The amazing thing is that my parents have not lived in the town covered by this paper in over 40 years.

Earlier this week, my local paper consolidated their printing plants and decided to close one of two editorial offices in my county. It is no doubt traumatic for the printers that are laid off, I'm sure. I Twittered about it (@BigGrayBeast) and heard a few minutes later from one of the editors asking if I had any ideas for them.

The fact they seek connections with their readers and bother to ask means they are trying.

I started on Twitter only a few months ago; mostly as a way to call some attention to this blog. It wasn't long before the Twitter account for the paper started following me, followed closely by one of the reporters and ultimately an editor. I doubt it was because they read this blog, but because they knew from my profile I was local and it was a smart marketing ploy. Nevertheless, a couple of Direct Messages were replied to, and I started looking for the reporters byline in online version of the paper. A connection, a two way connection was made. This wouldn't have been possible as easily in the past.

What ideas do I have for a local paper?

The answer is simple. What can they do better then the Washington Post, or the New York Times or the International Herald Tribute?

Easy, they can write about their town, their people.

My mother's fascination with the home town paper of where she was born and raised is a prime example. That newspaper of a town of 2500 never runs a story on the federal budget or the state of the military. If it runs a story about Iraq, it is about Joe Smith's son Pete returning from a stint there. It'll get quotes from Bill Myers, who played on the high school football team with Pete, and now teaches at the same school the two attended.

The foreign exchange student who spoke to the Rotary this week will be on the front page, right next to the 12 year old girl who got a buck her first year hunting.

The federal budget will get mentioned only if there's a grant in it to get the town its first new ambulance in ten years.

One cousin joked once the only way she could keep up with another cousin was by following his exploits in the police blotter in the paper.

Most of the time in my life, I've lived in a community where there was a major metropolitan newspaper, and a local paper for my suburb. I naturally read both. I thought it was ridiculous for the Hayward, California newspaper, for example, to report national news while the San Francisco Chronicle did a much better job. Let the Hayward paper talk about Hayward, I thought then, and still do. Think of all that room they could have filled with local news.

A local paper should report every School Board meeting (and sub committee meetings), every county meeting, planning commission meetings, the bigger Home Owners association meetings, every high school game (and not just football), and many of the Junior High games.

There should be every feature story imaginable. What's it like quitting your job and renting a kiosk at the mall and try to sell dog treats? What's the longest term employee with the school system?

Get readers eyes by making it possible they will see their name in print, likely they will see their kids name in the paper during the year, and certain they'll see the name of someone they know in every single issue. And not the same names--reach out beyond the Civic leaders and talk about the people.

The neighborhood paper arrived yesterday in the mail. My wife knew every one of the four people pictured on the front page. That is what local papers have to become.

How can a newspaper staff enough writers to do all this? What about investigative journalism? I have ideas on that too for a future entry.

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