The One Thing Newspapers Do Well…

Over the past decade, we’ve heard a lot of prognostications on newspaper’s place in the digital world, or perhaps their lack of said place.  Inevitably someone comes up with the statement “local newspapers do one thing well: covering local news you can’t get anywhere else.”

Over the past year or so, I can think of numerous occasions where I saw something, such as a car accident that tied up Route 146 for hours, which I’d have expected to find under the heading of “local coverage” only to find nothing.

Case in point, the other day I had to drive to Worcester after work, and along the eastbound side of Rt. 290 there were numerous small brush fires for about 5 miles, with police and fire personnel working them, along with major traffic jams.This was no small thing, and it was seen by thousands of Worcester residents, most of whom, like myself, would be wondering what happened?  Was it a peat fire?  Did a gas tanker spew gas along the road then burst into flames?  A bad prank by kids?

The Worcester Telegram website offered no answer. Plenty of AP stories from around the globe, but nothing on what was for many of us a major event for the day.  Great work, guys!

Here’s the thing: with all the cutbacks in newsrooms around the world, newspapers are now hard pressed to do the thing everyone says they do well, local news.  They’re short on bodies.  We forget that covering local news is actually very expensive versus running some puff off the wire.  What with having to actually get a reporter and a photographer in a car and all the way out to where the news is.  Wire service happens in the newsroom, making it quite convenient.

I have a news flash: if local papers don’t do local news, they’re valueless to the people they supposedly serve.

7 Replies to “The One Thing Newspapers Do Well…”

  1. While I understand your concerns, the Telegram was covering a murder-suicide at the time, and Steve Foskett was going an excellent job not only livetweeting his reporting of that incident, but he also retweeted the report from the Mass State Police that there were brush fires on 290.

    Yes, brush fires are of concern, but many of us who live in Worcester are more concerned about the murder of a woman by her ex-boyfriend, against whom she had a restraining order.

  2. Well said Sir. Looking back a few years at newspapers it is not hard to see what mistakes were made and how costly they were to the industry. Like you mention in your post, local news is important. Yet the first place major newspapers decided to make cuts was in the newsroom.

    I believe most newspapers are on an unstoppable spiral to extinction. Very small local town newspapers have the best chance of lasting for a few more years. The others will not be able to survive. People do not need to wait until the paper is printed to find out what is happening around them. People are not going to pay to see online content if they are also going to be bombarded with advertisements. That is the old model and it is dead. We are stuck in a tough time when local news is suffering at the hands of people that have the power to give us the content at a fair price but are still stuck to the old model. Until someone comes in and figures it out we suffer without a good alternative.

  3. Yes, Steve has done a great job of tweeting. My point is that there should be enough reporters to work two stories at once. We need more information than the fact that there were brush fires (although hats off to Steve for getting the word out, a good start there…).

    We can’t let the news be brought to its knees for one story, no matter how important.

  4. When we have to rely on retweets of State Police statements, well that about says it all about the sad state of local coverage. Important enough to Tweet but not put on website? A reporter can’t work two stories anymore? There are no interns in the office?

  5. Hi Mark,
    I found your site from your Twitter follow. You bring up a very good points and ones that a lot of us have heard before. What we don’t hear much about is how to solve this problem.

    One (partial) solution is being pushed by former Baltimore Sun photographer David Hobby (more well-known in the photography community as founder of the lighting blog Strobist.com). He is pushing photographers, amateur and professional alike, to go out and photograph in their community – but not just photograph, use photography as a means to enlighten the community about what is going on. Leading by his own example, he publishes these shots of his (Baltimore, MD) community on Hoco360.com.

    The idea is interesting as the community gets a fresh look at what is happening or who/what is interesting and the photographers get a steady stream of “subjects” to photograph with zero restrictions on how they can shoot them along with subtley becoming known as a photographer in that community, helping their business (if they do it for money).

    I’m curious on your take on this type of thing is, given your background.

    Cheers,
    Brian

    The beginnings of my own version of this idea can be found at Milling Millbury.

  6. With the ubiquity of smartphones with 8mp and up cameras, we’re all photojournalists now. About 5 years ago I started something like this, live tweeting the Sutton Chain of Lights under the hashtag #suttonchainoflights and blogging here. I think the true local coverage can only come from members of the community…and perhaps can only really be done right in a crowdsourced manner.

    The problem with that is that, like it or not, big media enforces journalistic standards, or at least they did. Somewhere there was a curmudgeonly editor deciding not what we want to read, but what we need to read. Also, he and his gaggle of surly copy editors would ensure the news was presented at least to the minimum of ethical standards.

    Single point coverage is easily bent and co-opted by the unethical, or even worse the fanatical. This doesn’t mean it can’t work, but we’re subject to the prejudice of the reporter. In most cases, not a problem, but in the cases where it is, it’s a monumental issue.

    Still, for smaller communities, like Sutton, like Millbury and certainly like Manchaug, this is a huge step up from where we come from, which is no coverage. I’ve long thought that I’d like to cover this area, but the truth is, I’d more enjoy getting back into outdoor reporting.

    Glad to have you aboard!

  7. I think classic journalism has an important place, as you said there are standards enforced. But on the other hand, considering the “global village” we live in, the importance of the fact everyone can be a “news maker” should not be underestimated.

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