Making the News “Hub of the Community” a Place People Want to Be

Dean Starkman, formerly of the Providence Journal, now a GoLocalProv contributor, makes some good points on his way to arguing that the Projo shouldn’t be cutting the journalists who make its core product, but he may fall to an error common among workers in any company or industry:

The point is that the Journal’s omnipresence—every Rhode Islander over 6 years old was probably interviewed by the Projo at some point—created the kind of intimacy that, we are learning today, creates real value. Loved and hated, often by the same people, the Projo was the hub of the community. True, it wasn’t interactive or even particularly responsive, and that’s not good. But that emotional and intellectual connection, which was taken for granted at the time, is what the Journal now has for sale. That, and little else.

Starkman goes on to denounce the paper’s corporate owner for giving out executive bonuses rather than bolstering newsrooms, which is a reasonable complaint. As with all employees complaining about their workplace, however, he doesn’t question whether they have anything to do with the decline of news organizations, generally, or this paper, specifically.

My pet theory on advertising revenue is that the Internet, with its clear and meaningful traffic statistics, disproved the newspaper advertising model. If X number of page views on a Web ad produce a vanishingly small click-through rate, maybe a printed ad buried in a newspaper doesn’t have quite the return folks used to believe in.

Things might have been different, back when newspapers were something to do in a world of limited entertainment. Periodically, while working construction in old homes, I’d come across an aged newspaper in a wall, and one could tell that the readership simply used it differently than is the case these days. The layout and content indicated that consumers (who had no televisions or personal computers and whose “tablets” were more apt to be operated with chalk) sat down and savored the publication from front to back.

In such practice, the ads offered their own value of a few moments of entertainment. They registered.

These days, people are less likely to savor the pages down to the ads because the newspaper has become more of a utilitarian tool for collecting information. Even online, where the ads can blink and pop up out of nowhere, they’re an obstacle in the way of getting what the reader’s after.

Ultimately, though, circulation is the more telling challenge, because a big-enough audience will create opportunity for some kind of revenue. Some news organizations have changed the nature of their products in order to chase the dumbed-down interests of a broader audience, but actual news reports are still a need that the Providence Journal remains uniquely suited to fill. And this is where the actual content comes into play.

Just as technology gave the population another view on the value of advertising, the Internet and other alternative news sources gave Rhode Islanders an opportunity for another perspective, from which they discovered that the paper wasn’t so much a “hub of the community,” but rather an outward-facing member of an insider club.

In part, this is a matter of journalistic bias. Whether consciously or not, a population that reads newspapers regularly will pick up on the fact that the writer actively generated the front-page controversy about a fundraising event of a political minority. Splatter that impression across most every article and issue of the paper, and folks who are not political aligned with the newspaper (whether on the other side or apolitical) will be less inclined to hang out in the “hub.”

The insider impression is also an outgrowth of big government. If the newspaper feels like little more than a journal of what the government is up to today, it’s partly because government can take enough money from the public to stage ostensibly newsworthy events and pay communications staffers to push ready-made stories out into the news. Most of the for-and-non-profit organizations that make up the community don’t have the flexibility in their budgets to compete with that level of attention seeking.

Big government also creates incentive to turn a local media market into a platform for lobbying. When a politician or lobbyist’s product is the getting of attention, most of his or her investment will be in doing just that.

When businesses try to use the news media for similar purposes, they’re apt to find themselves the villains of the story for ideological reasons or ignored because, well, promoting them is supposed to be what the ads are for, to keep the revenue flowing.

So, no, the answer to newspapers’ ills is most definitely not to reduce the number of people generating content, but that doesn’t relieve those people from responsibility (editors included). If you want to sell yourself as the “hub of the community” and create a market that builds you up and draws you out, you’ve got to prove the concept with what you’ve currently got — both to sell the public on your work and to educate the executives about your value.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in The Ocean State Current, including text, graphics, images, and information are solely those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the views and opinions of The Current, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity, or its members or staff. The Current cannot be held responsible for information posted or provided by third-party sources. Readers are encouraged to fact check any information on this web site with other sources.

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