Local Newspaper Dies. Now What?

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Remember the days of the morning and afternoon paper delivery? Okay neither do I, but my Dad does, which means it was not all that long ago that people got their news about the local community from the paper publications that showed up on their doorstep. Local reporters covered City Hall and community happenings. Residents would quietly awake in the morning to have a curated series of articles to read courtesy of the reporter and their editors. Maybe a reader would respond with a letter to the editor if they were really riled about a topic and had the energy to assemble a letter and mail it.

Then came the Internet and newspapers everywhere struggled to sell papers when online news was expected to be instant and free. Local papers were hardest hit by waning revenues and many died. If a community still has a local paper, it is likely shared with a neighboring city and often includes coverage from a journalist who just took their last final in college two months before.

AOL’s Patch provided some hope that local news could be reborn and delivered in an effective and efficient manner. Hiring reporters across the County, the Patch invested in hyperlocal assets to cover community news. Unfortunately, the Company – owned by AOL –  failed to achieve its financial goals and has been significantly pulled back from the market.

And while formal local news coverage has faded from the market, easy to use technologies like Facebook, Twitter and Nextdoor have made every resident a potential reporter. These informal reporters spread news in communities but do not adhere to traditional reporting norms. Often these reporters value speed over accuracy and opinion over investigation.

So what is a City to do? When local reporting is spotty and often slightly or wholly inaccurate and the public is inspired to post on social media that every car backfire is a gunshot, getting the good news of city government or communities in general out to the public can be challenging.

The most important thing to do is never take the isolationist approach. Remaining silent and refusing to join social media channels will never be a winning strategy. The Internet is here to stay, as is social media. The online conversation is happening with or without the city involved. And waiting for a crisis is the wrong time to start communicating; the people need to hear from the city regularly, and the city likely needs the practice.

Filling the void of local news coverage can be addressed with the following strategies:

  1. Consistently publish a newsletter to the community, whether electronic or printed.
  2. Use social media to cost-effectively push stories and information to your public, the vast majority of whom are likely using Facebook. Use funds to run ad campaigns and boost post to expedite your community engagement.
  3. Consider creation of a community digital paper created from cooperation between the schools, water utilities, city and local chamber of commerce. The City of Costa Mesa recently launched just such an effort with its Costa Mesa Connected platform (http://cityofcostamesanews.com/) This approach is not for the faint of heart, however, as the City itself had 10 people operating in communications, though a subset of those work on the website.
  4. Continue publishing press releases, but ensure they are released in HTML format on your own website to help search engines index the news.
  5. If you do have those recent graduate reporters in your community, connect with them on Twitter to help them find stories and make deadlines.

Each City is different, with different constituent needs, city capabilities and communication expectations. Media markets are also different, smaller cities are challenged to gather market share of news coverage from their big city counterpoints. The most important thing to remember in this era of instant digital communications is not to take the ostrich approach. Join the conversation and ensure the public has a chance to learn about the news in their city on as many mediums as possible.

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