State of the (newspaper) Nation

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Save the Craft (Part One)

picture-1Let’s face it: Canada’s newspaper industry is in trouble.

For those of you who get your news from other sources, don’t think you shouldn’t be worried. Newspaper journalism sets the standard for quality investigative reporting everywhere. Without newspaper journalists on the front line, many other journalists wouldn’t work as hard as they do. And without journalists acting as the ears, eyes and voice of the public, Canada would lose an essential equalizer in our democracy’s system of checks and balances.
It’s happening across Canada and is most noticeable within smaller city newspapers, which are rapidly being stripped to a point where they sometimes mirror their weekly free-sheet cousins. 
We journalists are generally a whiny bunch who have always thrived on complaining about the deteriorating state of the biz, but this crisis is real.
In April, the Toronto Star announced it would lay off 600 employees, including 10 online staff. In May, the venerable New York Times sacked 15 newsroom staff. Just last month, Sun Media announced it would lay off 600 employees, blaming the Internet and free, real-time access to news. Paul McQuaig, publisher of Sun Media’s three Niagara dailies, told the Niagara Falls Review the chain needed to change to address the “changing needs” of readers and advertisers and in response to the economic climate. 
Sure, the climate for newspapers is more challenging than ever before. But newspapers aren’t like widget manufacturers. You can’t cut back on content and quality to cut costs and expect the operation to prosper as a more streamline ship. When you provide readers with an inferior product, they stop reading and stop buying–for good. 
Newsroom staff reductions are a losing battle, or shall I say a futile surrender? Why not fight the good fight, instead of giving up, turning tail and chopping off limbs in hopes of becoming a smaller target? 
Why not work on creating a stronger Web presence, instead of creating a token or messy web presence as at least one owner of many small newspapers has done?
If you want to see a fantastic newspaper website, tour The Globe and Mail website. The Globe features photo documentaries and follows up stories in the newspaper with online articles and near-real-time reader discussions and interviews.  
The Internet offers newspapers a spectacular opportunity to wrestle real-time news reporting away from tv and radio. Reporters can now upload video and audio directly to their newspapers’ websites in real time while at the scenes of stories. How many newspapers are actually taking advantage of this tool? Having said this, with newsrooms so emaciated, what reporter has time to shoot video on top of his or her regular duties? Don’t even talk about ambition. Morale at smaller city newsrooms across the country is at an all-time low. Take a good look at your local newspaper.When’s the last time you read a really good investigative piece? Rather, when’s the last time you read anything of substance? Blame it on low morale as much as thinning newsrooms.
There is one area in which newspapers, at least the ones in smaller communities, seem to be investing and that’s marketing departments. Despite shrinking budgets, they’re hiring marketing managers and buying promotions vehicles to build brand awareness (all this while they’re axing more and more journalists). 
I don’t get it. Prize giveaways, marketing gimmicks and corporate donations don’t build long-term newspaper brand; good stories do. So why not produce great stories? After all, isn’t building a newspaper’s brand about getting people in your community to talk about the great stories they read in the morning paper? Doesn’t a newspaper’s brand get built by people standing around their office water coolers, or sipping drinks in their favourite coffee shops, or changing in locker rooms while talking about the morning’s headlines. “Hey, did you read the story about the ______ ______ in today’s paper?” That’s how a newspaper builds brand. 
It sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? Well, I thought so. 
Visit me next time when I’ll tell you about the blurring line between editorial and advertising departments and how the decay of this once sacred divide is killing newspaper credibility in smaller newspaper markets.

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Save the Craft (Part Two)

advertising-cartoon3In a time when newspapers must stay alert and focused to survive, it’s never been more important to maintain credibility and public respect.

Yet, in a misguided attempt to win advertisers and to please friends in powerful places, newspaper chains are disregarding the age-old rules that have helped them maintain credibility and reader trust.

For newspapers to survive, communities must feel we look out for their best interests, that we’re they’re eyes, ears and voice, and that what we write is fair, honest, accurate and without bias. It’s pretty simple: Readers won’t invest in us if they don’t believe us. Sadly, communities are losing trust in their newspapers because newspaper owners are sabotaging the trust that journalists have worked so hard to create.

At one small daily, editors were ordered to change all references to a controversial “arena” project to the word “facility.” Reporters weren’t going to be told. Journalists in that newsroom could only imagine that the city’s mayor had whispered in the new publisher’s ear that calling the arena an “arena” could jeopardize federal projects funding. The city didn’t want the “facility” to be seen as a sports complex because the fed money was for cultural projects, not sports projects. Reporters protested and explained the dangers of being manipulated by outside interest groups, but the newspaper’s editor just didn’t get it. Of course, the edict leaked out and was published in a story by that city’s radical newspaper, so the public found out about it.

Sometimes, perception of integrity is just as important as integrity itself. In another misguided attempt to get ahead, a small city newspaper wanted to capture a lucrative advertising account with a new big-box, big-chain retailer. The retailer played hardball. To win the contract, the newspaper provided a favourable story about the new store in its editorial section. The story appeared the same day as the retailer’s first full-page ad. I can only imagine the reaction among other retailers who wouldn’t have had the pull to attain such credibility-building coverage. If you don’t already know this, getting a news story in the newspaper can provide an organization with instant credibility. Unfortunately, the compromise did untold, irreparable damage to the newspaper’s credibility.

There are other examples, but I’ll stop there. My point is that newspaper owners are forgetting that the cornerstone of maintaining readership is maintaining reader trust. They’re shooting themselves in the foot and they just won’t believe it. I became a journalist because I believed it was a proud, noble profession. I held my head high knowing I was making a difference, that I was exposing bad guys, and revealing the truth. That’s getting harder and harder to do. It’s enough to make a grown hack cry.

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