Don’t Let Anyone Else Own YOUR Story

Part of a continuing series.

The latest round of depressing global facts about newspapers is one good reason that successful publishers should be THE Community Forum and own THEIR story.

Important as they seem to be, the annual findings of the Pew Research Center, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, and analysts like the Poynter Institute mean nothing if they don’t reflect the true longterm value of a community newspaper, its strengths and how it smartly confronts challenges.

There’s a big difference between battling to prosper and perpetuating no hope. One is a moving picture, the other a snapshot.

I know the story I’d want to tell.

Dynamic community newspapers are moving pictures. They’re full of potential, promise and purpose.

Annual report cards about newspapers, especially after a pandemic, are snapshots. In 2021, the message unfortunately sticks to advertising continuing to decline, total circulation continuing to drop even though it is now the top revenue producer (yes, it’s funny math), and audience growth continuing to be online. The broken record: Minuses outweigh the meager pluses as total revenue remains a disaster.

No success stories are noted.

Rather, as a consolation, we’re forced to reminisce about the good old days. Here’s an example from a research piece headlined “The great unbundling of local news” and posted by the Nieman Journalism Lab:

“Traditional local news sources, especially local newspapers, used to bundle news and information on a whole range of local topics. Local politics comes first to mind. But they have also covered stories that help build community, featuring local people who participate in local sports and local events, in addition to providing information such as weather forecasts, traffic updates, or shop opening hours. In the last year, local news has also been tremendously important in covering the local consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.

“This bundle of some hard news, some soft news, and other information was a major selling point in the past. Even if people didn’t care that much about local politics, they had to get the local paper if they wanted to know where to go, or what jobs were available in the area. But as this year’s Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism shows, audiences no longer think that the local paper is the best source for most of this.”

Ouch.

Why do we keep sharing these reports without a response?

The Relevance Project asserts the time is now for newspapers to adopt the Community Forum strategy to work like heck to engage citizens via town halls, surveys, group discussions, moderated online forums and other actions that go well beyond producing a newspaper that guesses at what people are interested in. Rebuild the business on civil, civic dialogue.

The Community Forum model is the best way to put the engage in audience engagement. It’s a great way to improve a community’s news literacy. It’s a vital route to helping a community seek solutions for a better quality of life.

Part of this strategy at the outset includes sharing all local newspaper victories to counter any and all bad news provided from a national perspective and in comparisons to other countries. It’s also important to be open about the revenue challenges the legacy businesses face in a transformation to a multimedia enterprise.

Use the Community Forum to meet with readers and discuss what you are doing to keep the local newspaper the indispensable source of news and information. Take the same approach with advertisers, sponsors and other backers.

Talk to them directly.

Let them hear from you about the local news operation.

Be creative.

Search out those who can’t attend.

How about this goal: Make it a point of talking to everyone in your community at least once a year.

Too lofty?

Then pause on this sentence in the same Nieman Lab article: “While the local newspaper used to solve problems and performed many jobs for readers, many users now find that other sources are better able to fill those roles.”

Used to solve problems.

Performed many jobs for readers.

Other sources are better able.

If you are one of those papers that never left this overall encompassing mission, then stand up and tell that story. Loudly, please.

If you’re not, it’s tempting to think the future is a matter of restoring what worked well in the past, but doing it across multimedia platforms.

Only you know.

In meantime, tell your best story that shoots down the global reports that imply — what a weasel word — newspapers are going away.

If you don’t, no one will.

Tom Silvestri

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