The Community Forum Is Shelter From The Storm

One in a continuing series.

Efforts to save local news are like summer storms.

The heat builds and builds to sweaty highs. Humidity soars in tandem. Dark, ominous clouds arrive. It looks like the end of the world. Winds kick up. Branches snap, debris swirls, old roofs are exposed. Concerns about damage, loss and injury rise to near panic.

And then the storm arrives.

If you survive the thunder, lightning, downpour and deluge unscathed, the bonus is clear skies, cooler temps and a rainbow.

Good times.

In 2021, local news continues to be stuck seeking shelter from the storm.

The latest round of handwringing stems from a column last week by Politico’s media correspondent that indicated there’s not enough demand for local news to make it a viable business. I’ve seen it picked up in several newsletters. My favorite quote: “Maybe the surfeit of local news of yesteryear was the product of an economic accident, a moment that cannot be reclaimed.”

Maybe.

Solutions exist.

We just keep ignoring an obvious one.

The Relevance Project’s advocacy is for newspapers to become THE Community Forum where the focus is on engaging everyone in a local market.

Note: Audience could expand to beyond a home market, depending on the news topics. For example, exploring a problem facing military veterans could be of interest to the entire universe of vets.

The Community Forum is a three-prong strategy.

Explaining the mission of the news organization, welcoming constructive advice and securing valuable insight on what to cover.

Never tire.

Deepening the news literacy of the community. It’s the important work of building a better news consumer, replacing the damage caused by divisive politics and shortsightedness by certain newspaper owners.

Never assume.

Examining community problems and exploring related solutions. Do it over and over. Add dissecting (and even celebrating) community positives and finding new ways to expand them. (Beats only writing about broken government.)

Never let down.

This is not about producing a better newspaper. Or website.

It goes beyond product.

It’s all about service.

Purpose.

Relevance.

Solve someone’s problems and you’ll be in demand. They may call you only during a crisis — at least they call! — but there’s always preventative measures to share and deeper knowledge to strengthen connections in the meantime.

I don’t understand why more newspapers don’t embrace the Community Forum model. When I press, I hear excuses.

No time.

Not enough staff.

We have a paper to put out.

We need money now to meet our budgets.

We have to check with corporate.

My favorite: Why would I want to get in front of a bunch of critics?

If that’s your attitude, you’ve made the Politico correspondent a truth teller.

A trend exists among entrepreneurs creating niche news outlets. One of the first hires they make is that of an audience engagement point person.

Media is audience.

No audience. No business or future.

Relevance is flexing meaningful connections to your community which views you as indispensable.

The Community Forum is audience engagement at its highest level.

Added thought:
To pay for a newsroom, I agree with Nancy Lane at the Local Media Association you also need a plan for community-funded journalism. She makes an excellent case in her latest commentary.

Specific projects or targeted news coverage attached to the Community Forum are winning formulas.

Time is running out on advertising and subscription revenue as the long-term play.

“Economic accident,” remember.

Future home runs are community philanthropy from partners and dollars from marketing budgets of raving fans.

Shelter from the storm, you know.

Be the Community Forum.

–Tom Silvestri

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