Journalism is the business of building communities

Posted: 2009-02-20
Can democratic communities survive without a newspaper to provide them the civic information they need? That's the question on many journalists' minds these days?

But I think it more enlightening to flip that question, and ask again: Can newspapers survive without the communities they need to sustain them?

That, I think is where so many news organizations have failed over the past generation. In a drive to professionalize the journalism industry (and, then, to cut costs), we've cut our publications off from the communities they are supposed to represent.

This issue literally has kept me up nights as I think about how it applies to the two websites my wife and I publish. Neither of us has a full-time job with any employer. Our websites are our livelihoods now. What will happen to our family if they same market forces that have turned against newspapers turn against our websites? What happens then?

Envisioning this scenario, I came to realize that what we've built is not a pair of websites. It's not even the information contained within them. The most important thing that we've built is the two communities of individuals who read and communicate through the sites. That is our product. And that is what we must hold on to, to nurture and to cultivate, if media preferences change and Web publishing become the next newsprint.

That's a liberating moment: when you realize that journalism is not the business of reporting, writing and publishing newspapers... or websites. It's the business of community building. And to do that, you must build your publication's community from within the broader geographical, topical or professional community that you wish to serve.

My wife and I in the past have hired freelance writers to report for our sites. None of them are still with us. Why? Their work didn't resonate with our communities, either in page views or responses submitted, the way that other content submitted for free from our readers did.

And why was that? Because, I think, these writers were not from our communities. They were not violin professionals (on my wife's violin website), nor were they theme park industry veterans (on my theme park travel website). When we hire writers in the future, we will insist that they not only have professional experience in the field that they cover, but that they be registered members of our publication communities as well.

Newspapers long ago quit doing that when hiring their staffs. My first paid job in news was a part-time reporting gig while I was in graduate journalism school. I covered country government for the local newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana. That made sense, because I went to high school in nearby Indianapolis, and thanks to many weekends at high school speech meets, music contests and summer events like Boy State, I knew people throughout the Bloomington area. I was part of that community.

My first full-time job after graduation, however, was writing editorials for the paper in Omaha, Nebraska, a community I'd not stepped foot in until the paper flew me up for an interview. I had zero business working that paper, mush less writing editorials for it. I wasn't part of that community and didn't know it.

When newspapers hire staffers from other cities and states, they further isolate themselves from their home communities. Here in Los Angeles (where I was born and went to elementary school, by the way), we've endured a string of publishers, editors and reporters from out of town shaping coverage at the rapidly shrinking Los Angeles Times. One need only read (LA native) Kevin Roderick's LA Observed blog over time to discover some of the gaffes and groaners that have resulted.

Many journalists from outside a community, in time, grow to know it and become greater reporters within it. But others do not. And the coverage from those who do not know they community, or haven't learned it yet, diminishes the value of that publication to the broader community. There are plenty of great writers, editors and business people in Los Angeles from the Times to draw upon. Including many from communities within LA that the Times traditionally has covered poorly, especially non-Anglo communities.

The same story has been repeated in newsrooms across the country. Newspapers hire fresh j-school grads from outside the community, reporters with great talent but little experience and no knowledge of the city they'll be asked to cover. The result often is shallow, indifferent coverage that gives readers fewer compelling reasons to pick up their local paper each day. Or papers hire a hot-shot reporter from another city, thinking that experience in the newspaper industry is more valuable to their readers' community than actual experience living and working within that community.

Hate to break it to some of you, but it isn't.

How much better could coverage have been had papers instead identified students from their community who were going to j-schools around the country, and kept in touch with them? If they had offered internships only to students from their communities? And hired some of them when they finished school? Those rookies would have started with a much richer understanding of their community, and a much greater chance of producing content that readers wouldn't find ill-informed.

Then, how much better still would that coverage have been if papers had paid a decent enough salary to these employees so that they could stick around to develop industry experience at home as their community experience deepened?

Instead, newsrooms went cheap, didn't develop a "farm team" of local j-students, ran AP coverage instead of reports from locals stationed in bureaus around the state, country or world, and treated readers like ignorant consumers to be written down to instead of knowledgeable neighbors to be respected. Is it any surprise, then, that newsrooms ended up with "communities" built upon distressing levels of reader churn?

And when the U.S. federal "do not call" law took away paper's ability to blanket the community with sales calls, papers didn't have enough of the smart local coverage they needed to bring back readers they were losing. (By the way, I find it curious how so few news industry analysts mention the effect of the do-not-call law in contributing to newspapers' current dire financial situation, given how dependent so many papers were upon telemarketing to sign up new readers in a high-churn business.)

All this, of course, creates an opportunity for online news entrepreneurs. Do not repeat the mistakes of your print colleagues. As you look to build a local news website, cover only the communities that you know - of which you are a part. Don't go looking to expand into markets you do not know. When (or if) you look to hire help, hire only from within these same communities.

You might have to look harder. You might need to engage local students earlier in their lives, to help train them to be ready, one day, to work for you. But are these bad things? No, they'll further tie you to the community that you cover - which is essential to protecting your business's health and future.

We're not in the publishing business. We're in the community business. And to so successfully, we must build our businesses from within our own communities.

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