Local Newspapers Killing Themselves With Lack Of Local Focus
An Example Of What Is Killing Newspapers
An Example Of What Is Killing Newspapers

Sunday’s Courier-Journal, Louisville’s daily newspaper, is one of the few tactile media publications I still read. I get the paper every day delivered in my RSS feeds, but Sunday mornings with local newspapers are still useful, if for the experience alone. My wife enjoys perusing the coupons. I like reading feature stories and the agate page of the sports section to see items from out-of-market or small college teams the paper never covers.

Sunday, I ran across an interesting article about Fred Greenhalgh’s podcasts at Finalrune.com. The piece was a nice explanation of how Greenhalgh is sort of bringing back the radio drama through his podcasts. The article was a nice read and of decent length and gave me a few moments to revisit my days in radio, but also appreciate the modern medium of Internet podcasts and what can be done with them.

But then I realized something very, very sad.

Recording a radio play. The Netherlands, [1949].
Image via Wikipedia

The article, found in the Sunday Forum section of the Courier-Journal, was written by Barry Newman. Of the Wall Street Journal. Fred Greenhalgh lives in Portland, Maine. Not a shred of this article had anything to do with Louisville, Kentucky or the surrounding area. On the surface, that might seem like a nonsense criticism of the Courier-Journal’s lack of local focus and wire copy back-falling. I did enjoy the article, after all. But when you consider the similar story of J.C. Hutchins, you see my point.

J.C. Hutchins couldn’t get 7th Son published. The Louisville native had created a masterful first attempt at a book, but publishers were frigid on it. Not one to give up on a dream, Hutchins turned the unpublished work into a published one using the Internet. The 7th Son podcasts grew virally until legions of Clone Army insiders were downloading, blogging, taking pictures in Clone Army shirts and more. The imagination of Hutchins’s futuristic, sci-fi story captured that of thousands.

So much so that a publisher finally realized the mistake and published 7th Son.

A Louisville native, product of Atherton High School, Western Kentucky University graduate, using podcasting, creating audio experiences that not only capture imaginations like radio dramas, but lead to overcoming publishing world obstacles and turning his book dream into reality … that’s the story the Courier-Journal needs to tell. Sadly, it hasn’t. Searching the C-J finds no mention of J.C. Hutchins anywhere. Other local newspapers don’t fare much better.

While there’s nothing wrong with the Courier-Journal telling both stories, and one example does not an industry fault make, the facts of the matter are this: The Wall Street Journal charges for its online content because it is original and serves its audience supremely. The Courier-Journal and similar local newspapers could never get away with monetizing their content because they’re so busy finding wire copy (ironically from the Wall Street Journal) to fill a spot in their Sunday Forum that they don’t even notice stories that their audiences would really care about.

While local newspapers aren’t exactly facing competition from primary new media sources (yet), they must get rid of the notion that they are to supply the entire world’s news and notes to their readers. Or at least realize that if their content isn’t locally relevant and of service to its geographic footprint, it is less relevant than other mediums that are. We will pay for good content. We won’t pay for our local newspaper’s online version. And yes, those two concepts are very much connected.

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About the Author

Jason Falls
Jason Falls is the founder of Social Media Explorer and one of the most notable and outspoken voices in the social media marketing industry. He is a noted marketing keynote speaker, author of two books and unapologetic bourbon aficionado. He can also be found at JasonFalls.com.
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  • Jason,

    Glad you enjoyed the article – non KY focus and all – and that you brought up this issue.

    You might appreciate that as a writer, producer, artist, etc. I had NO ink on me until the Wall Street Journal article came out. By this I mean local weeklies, dailies, heck, even college papers.

    Literally the college newspaper where I graduated, and where I was putting on a show (on their campus, with their students, on their radio station) would not even print what I was up to.

    I'm not about to go into deep speculation about why this was the case but I'll assume at least part of the blame is due to limited budgets – understaffed, overworked reporters who resort to wire content since it's easy. BUT oh so disservicing the audience.

    Local papers really need to turn themselves into customized email pieces sent to local readers :)

    Fred Greenhalgh
    FinalRune Productions

  • Jason,

    Glad you enjoyed the article – non KY focus and all – and that you brought up this issue.

    You might appreciate that as a writer, producer, artist, etc. I had NO ink on me until the Wall Street Journal article came out. By this I mean local weeklies, dailies, heck, even college papers.

    Literally the college newspaper where I graduated, and where I was putting on a show (on their campus, with their students, on their radio station) would not even print what I was up to.

    I'm not about to go into deep speculation about why this was the case but I'll assume at least part of the blame is due to limited budgets – understaffed, overworked reporters who resort to wire content since it's easy. BUT oh so disservicing the audience.

    Local papers really need to turn themselves into customized email pieces sent to local readers :)

    Fred Greenhalgh
    FinalRune Productions

  • It's really startling when you look at the daily ratio of original reporting to wire copy. Sometimes less than 50 percent of what you're reading is actually written by people at the publication you're reading.

  • I read these comments…. There are interesting……

  • Jacob

    Great piece. As another former radio guy, you hit the nail on the head. There are a few more reasons this progression has continued with newspapers (and radio) but I will save that for another venue.
    Nice post.

    • Thanks, my man. We'll have to trade radio war stories one day. That was my
      thing in high school and college.

  • Juan

    That is the reason I never read the local paper as everything is old copy-cat stories from other papers. It is sad; but other then sensationalist stories (robbers , killings) there is nothing of value.

    Sad in deed but that's reality.

    • Thanks Juan. I can certainly see how many papers have produced that reaction
      in folks.

  • davidcarroll

    I believe that newspapers whether local or national or going the way of the buggy whip. The eyes are going to the internet in droves and advertisers are following. Good local content will help but that is not the real problem. Some newspapers will survive for a time as they are the medium of choice for many people my age and older but as the younger and older generations grow older and readership drops much further only the strongest and best managed newspapers will survive and then only in a much smaller capacity.

    • Good thoughts, David. Thanks for chiming in.

  • poppiedee

    I notice with local papers over here (in Aus) people are eager to see if “their neighbor's” team has won the footy, the “girl next door's” engagement announcement is in the local paper and so on.

    It is an important binding tool for local communities giving a sense of importance & notoriety to people amongst their peers.
    I agree, they are not the National News Broadcaster just as the National News isn't the local broadcaster…both have their own roles.

    Not sure about printed paper longevity plans tho”!

    • Thanks for the perspective from down under P. Interesting that it's so very
      similar. Appreciate the comment.

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  • I saw this very problem in my days at a daily paper. But on the flipside, as we produced completely original content everyday, nothing from the wire services, nothing. However, when we did breaks something big, our parent paper, the Times, would not post out story, but send out their own writers. They have others stories to cover and yet, are overlooking the hard work and value of the local reporters.

    Also with niche reporting agencies the likes of TMZ, people are looking more for subject-based readership, rather than area-based.

    Newspapers' biggest crime is their lack of willingness to experiment and simply grabbing the big guy's stuff for print.

  • The local media market is really really in dire shape right now, because they are still trying to make old methods work. It is the classic square peg in a round hole. You can't provide content and points of view that enormous national properties and syndication already provide and expect to survive.

    In the Albany NY market the TV/Radio and print for that matter is getting their head handed to them by a 24 hours news property because they focused on the one thing the others fail at, important local information, constantly, with a very brief nod to what is happening outside the region.

    People pay for content all the time, they just tend to be willing to pay for what they perceive as valuable.

    • Thanks Patrick. Certainly a valid point!

  • A large part of the problem is *access* to local content like what's mentioned in Jason's comment to back to Mandy — content from colleges, local governments, etc. This is the bread-and-butter of local news and what people in communities really care about. They can get the national stuff from a host of other places in various flavors. But often the local stuff remains locked away in the organizations who are the basis for this kind of news because they don't know how to make people aware of it, and newspapers can no longer chase it down.

    Newspapers don't have the resources anymore to to have a lot of beat reporters in place to generate local content. This means that local organizations need to step up their PR efforts and essentially “cover themselves” – writing news releases/stories and then not only getting them to reporters but also publishing online and getting them into social networks, their own blog or Web site, etc.

    A lot of local news is reporting, but not necessarily journalism: This local athlete broke his college record for free throws. The town board voted to approve X, Y or Z. If organizations can compile this type of news content on their own, in-house, and then send it to local reporters and newspapers in a format that's easy to repackage, it could go a long way in beefing up local news content and cutting down on wire stories like the one you mentioned.

    We're seeing this happen with a lot of readMedia's clients — they are essentially becoming their own beat reporters and providing valuable, local content to their local media outlets.


    • Well said, Amy. Thanks for chiming in on this.

  • I agree. Our county newspaper, the Gwinnett Post, has filed for bankruptcy protection. The front page and the sports section do a good job of covering local news but the rest of it is AP reprints. That news is better covered either online or by the main paper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Newspapers constantly bemoan the decline in readership and blame 24×7 news channels and the net but they aren't looking for ways to evolve and make themselves relevant. I think they could slow the readership slide if they went back to the kind of hard-hitting investigative journalism and local focus they used to have.

    • No arguments here. Thanks for commenting.

  • As I was driving into work today, I heard an interview our local sports radio station did with the 22-year PA announcer for the Missouri Tigers who also works for a company that owns several radio stations in small-town Missouri. Throughout the interview, he continuously praised our KC station for providing unique, localized content. He then went on to talk about other small-town Missouri stations that he is sure will survive despite the social media boom because they provide hyper-local coverage (he actually mentioned high school football games) that is hard to find anywhere else.

    Seems we are headed to the point where local content has got to be the focus of media outlets (they shouldn't think of themselves as only newspapers; that's what got them in trouble in the first place) like The Kansas City Star or the C-J. And then the backdrop can be the national news. You got me to the table for local, now I'll take the national as well.

    That said, I see Mandy's point too. Resources can be an issue. So how can these media outlets evolve to serve up the content? Do they need to be looking for the influential citizen journalists in their area and surfacing that content as a way to entice readers and supplement resources? The Kansas City Star is doing this with it's Mom2Mom blog (http://www.mom2momkc.com/). And it seems to be some of the more popular content on the site. Thoughts? Thanks for the interesting post.


    • I think resorting to your community for content is a great idea, but
      traditional media normally scoff at the notion, saying it's unqualified.
      They essentially say their audience doesn't know how to serve their
      audience. What they don't see is the opportunity to have tons of hyperlocal
      content (unfiltered, perhaps even unpolished and biased, sure) then lay
      their ethics, training, etc., on top to focus on the relevant stories of the
      day. I stuns me so many newspapers don't see this as better than wire copy.

  • I gotta disagree with your reasoning here, Jason (though not your premise).

    The use of wire copy is not making papers so busy they don't write local stories. In fact, I'd say it does just the opposite. Using wire copy for, say, business and state government stories is the only way to free up staff to write local stories these days.

    It doesn't take local manpower, money or time to acquire or print wire copy. As newspapers continue to cut staff, hours and every possible corner – they are using that copy instead of paying overtime to a reporter who already has three stories in the Sunday paper to write a local feature. In fact, local features writers are easily the first ones a newspaper cuts.

    I'm not saying that is is right the CJ hasn't written about this guy – and it isn't that I don't think there could be a better focus on local news with the limited resources available – but you're pointing a finger at the (unfortunate, hopefully temporary) solution instead of the cause.

    The cause is that newspapers have cut their staff to the bone to the detriment of the end product. The local feature profile is largely dead. And believe me, I find that very sad, too.

    • Thanks for the internal perspective, Mandy. And if the newspaper is getting
      their state and federal government news the wire copy way and using the live
      reporters to cover locally relevant news or features, that's great. But the
      public doesn't see it. I see 128 pages or so full of wire copy with a few
      columns and the local college basketball team (singular really … they
      don't cover 80 percent of our alma maters) and the occasional city
      government story that is worth reading. I counted the front section stories
      once about a year or so ago and came up with 13 percent of the stories
      written by newsroom staff. The other 87 were wire stories. Of those, about
      15 percent had some implication on the local market. That means about 75
      percent of the stories in the “news” section of the paper were irrelevant to
      most of the paper's readers.

      To me it's not about how many stories you can cover and how much of the
      total news of the world you can cram into your publication. It's about the
      type of stories that your readers really care about. And I think that's one
      area most daily newspapers are severely lacking in because the wire services
      are an easy space filler.

      I do appreciate the fact that the economics of the industry and the cutting
      of staffs in local newsrooms leave journalists and newsrooms between a rock
      and a hard place. The finger-pointing isn't right at the editors or the
      journalists, but at the industry in general. There are some good newsrooms
      out there. But the example I provided, unfortunately, is common place, I

      Thanks again for the newsroom perspective. You know I love what you do up
      there in Cincy. Keep on keepin' on.

    • Smart local news entities (which will largely need to be independent) need to adapt to fill the void being filled by the all too easy cut the staff and offshore content model that has become the dujour of how to fill the content wheel.

      As a not too off topic aside, local, and frankly national advertisiers are going to need to creatively adapt to the idea of supporting content and shift away from just selling their brand and cheapest item of the day. Advertisers who are seizing the moment will be making deals with good local content providers that in many ways come off as corporate/good business citizenship, vs. the tired haggling of CPM efficiency. There are some big hurdles in there I am not going to be able to answer at 3:24 on Friday in Disqus. As long as the advertisers are not swaying the opinions or steering the content it works.

  • jchutchins

    Jason, thanks for the resonant post, and for mentioning my work. This spiraling content trend has been happening for years; it was one of the reasons I left the journalism business in 2002. Wire copy can often be quite good — but those column inches dedicated to AP stories obviously gobbles up opportunities for local coverage.

    Sadly, it's an economics issue: Wire copy is cheaper to publish, and with newspapers collapsing under economic pressures that have been mounting for decades (not to mention their reluctance to embrace new business models), they simply, literally, cannot afford local talent to cover local stories. It's heartbreaking.

    Regarding the C-J's coverage of this Louisville native: I did snag a 50-word mention in the paper back in June 2009. I appreciated that.

    • Thanks, J.C. And thanks for correcting my reporting of the C-J's lack of
      Hutchins love. They apparently don't have it documented (or well tagged)
      online. I searched a couple different ways and found nothing. I still say
      they've missed your story. But as you proved with 7th Son, you don't need
      traditional approaches to succeed. Thanks for being an inspiration.

  • Former Louisvillian Bob Edwards did a piece with a similar take on newspapers last weekend. http://bit.ly/9R6w0n

    • Well played, sir. Any link to Bob Edwards stuff is much appreciated.

  • A great story and illustration how local focus has a pulling power that connects and resonates. While we are still somewhat in the dark ages of internet deliverey and penetration in South Africa, as a local focus, international reference lifestyle site (previuosly a printed publication, yet another casualty of the economic war) this serves as a highlight on the page of “How to Remain Relevant” in an ever changing media landscape.

    • Thank you for the thoughts from afar Fraser. Honored to know South
      Africa is among the readership.


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