Friday, May 30, 2008

Hannibal Publisher and Editor Uses Letter to Explain Increased Local Media Coverage

To Our Readers,

Rarely, if ever, do newspapers use their “news” pages to communicate with their readers, especially not on real estate as valuable as the front page. After all, that’s what the opinion page is for, isn’t it? Perhaps that’s one more reason why newspapers find themselves becoming irrelevant to the modern generation and even to some long-time readers.

For too long, we have been producing products for our peers – newspapers stories and series that can be judged by other newspaper professionals. We submit them to various entities like state press associations, even the Pulitzer competition, and then bask in the accolades we receive when we win. But in this process, we have lost the real reason for our being - YOU, the reader.

Following is a letter I received from our editor (yours and mine), Mary Lou Montgomery. We have been talking a lot lately about how we can make the Hannibal Courier-Post more compelling to you, our readers. I was so moved by it, that I felt it imperative that I share it with you in this prominent position of the Courier-Post.

Please take the time to read it and accept that this is our new philosophy at the Courier-Post. We may not always get it right, but it won’t be because we didn’t try. We invite you to be our eyes and ears. Let us know what is happening in the region. Don’t ever assume we already know, chances are we don’t. When in doubt, call us.

While painting the popcorn ceiling in my bathroom on a rainy Fourth of July morning, I mentally reviewed the last three decades of my career. I came up with a long list of things that - to meet “journalistic standards” of the day - we stopped offering to our readers.

We don’t do dead deer.
We don’t use Polaroid pictures
We don’t print long lists of names, such as those attending a reunion.
We don’t use pictures without accompanying names.
We stopped inviting pictures of the first mushroom finds of the year.
We stopped taking pictures of the pee-wee league ball players.
We started downplaying the beauty pageants and baby contests.
We stopped printing happy birthday pictures of children as part of the news package.
We stopped paying correspondents to submit “chicken dinner” news.
We stopped taking pictures of newly elected club officers.
We stopped describing wedding gowns.

Somewhere between Watergate and Iraq, newspapers let go of the personal touch and replaced it with a more “sophisticated” journalistic style. In the meantime, we lost our loyal readers.

I was shocked a few years ago when I asked my daughter’s friend (a school teacher working on her master’s degree) where she obtained her local news. She doesn’t take a newspaper or watch network news, she told me. She votes Democratic – her family always has – and her mother keeps her abreast of the local happenings. But what really surprised me was her answer to this question: “How do you find out about national news?” Her answer was condensed to three letters: M-T-V.

“MTV has news??” I asked, showing my ignorance for her generational preferences.

While I wasn’t watching, M-TV stole a segment of our news market.

I can trace my own transformation from an enthusiastic gatherer of community news to a “journalist’s journalist” to a conference I attended in March 1981. Because I lacked formal J-school training, newspaper management sent me to the prestigious JC Penney Workshop at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Daryl Moen conducted a page design workshop, and made slides of the newspaper pages we submitted in advance. Surrounded by real “community editors” from metro papers across the country, my nervousness was surpassed only by my level of intimidation. As my pages flashed onto the oversized screen in this auditorium on the J-school campus, Moen offered his condescending reviews of my amateurish attempts at design, and the congregated editors followed his lead, laughing at my pages – and at me. I slunk out of that conference and headed back to the safe haven of my hometown newspaper, where I joined my colleagues in redefining local content. That laughter echoed in my consciousness for years while we took steps to please contest judges and other journalists, rather than our loyal readers. We shunned those who invited us into their homes every day - ‘We don’t do that,’ - until they lost interest in what we had to say.

How do we reverse this trend? As journalists, we must quit trying to please each other, and instead get back to the basics of getting in touch with our neighbors.

Today, we call it reader contributed content. I see it as a three-decade reversal of attitude for the journalism profession. It’s inviting citizens to once again be a part of the news gathering process.

In order for our community newspapers to recapture our market share, instead of saying “We can’t,” or “We don’t,” we must find a way to say: “Yes, we will.”

Friday, May 23, 2008

Hannibal Newspaper Committes to Hyper-Local Coverage and Sees Postive Results

One Missouri newspaper has made a tremendous turn-around and its publisher, Jack Whitaker, says the upswing in subscribers and advertisers is because of a new emphasis on local coverage.

Yep, you read that right, local coverage. The newspaper in Hannibal is focusing its attention on doing what a local newspaper does best -- covering local issues. It is the reason readers subscribe. And local coverage is why local newspapers exist.

"We have a local franchise and our focus is local," said Whitaker. "Let the big national newspapers cover the national stories but we are going to protect our local franchise by providing local news coverage."

Whitaker spoke for a few moments at the Ozarks Press Association meeting this Spring. He said the Hannibal Courier-Post, which is a daily newspaper, has stopped using Associated Press content except for national sports coverage.

The change at this newspaper has been pretty dramatic. Granted, the steps they took were dramatic too. But this renewed and continual focus on local coverage has increased subscriptions and every other benchmark used by newspapers to measure success.

"People want to know what only the local newspaper can bring them. Our franchise is the local news, local people and local photos," said Whitaker.

Would a renewed local focus help your community newspaper? I think the answer is "yes" for every newspaper in southwest Missouri. If MU Extension can be of help in working on increasing your local news coverage but helping with a content audit or going over ideas for local coverage please contact me.

Next week, I'll share the letter written by Jack Whitaker to his readers about the importance of local news coverage. It is worth reading.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Protect Mourners' Rights, But Not at Expense of First Amendment

The quiet reverence of a funeral service held in honor of a fallen soldier is punctuated by the jarring retort of a 21-gun salute. A folded American flag, once draping the coffin of the deceased, is handed respectfully to the surviving spouse. A few short words “from a grateful nation” are uttered, followed by a crisp salute and the solemn playing of “Taps.” A few yards away mulls a group of protesters holding signs and chanting “Thank God for dead soldiers.” It’s the juxtaposition of these two rituals that is at the heart of one University of Missouri professor’s examination of the legal issues surrounding privacy and free speech.

Christina Wells, Enoch H. Crowder Professor of Law at the MU School of Law, found that recent legislation enacted in response to funeral protests conducted by members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas may restrict a broad range of expressive activities, including peaceful protests. A careful examination of the statutes, some of which have been upheld in lower courts, reveals that they are designed to protect mourners from offensive rather than intrusive protests, a distinction that is important, Wells said.

“The instinct to regulate or punish is powerful and understandable. Such regulation, however, poses significant issues for freedom of speech. Our outrage shouldn’t overshadow reasoned legal response,” Wells said.

Lower courts, after hearing legal challenges to the funeral protest statutes, have essentially said a person has a privacy right to be free from offensive messages while attending funerals. If those decisions are allowed to stand, they could have an impact on freedom of speech doctrine, Wells said. According to Wells, the First Amendment allows some regulation of protests near funerals, but how and why government officials restrict such protests also matters.

“While few would argue against protecting funeral services from intrusive protests, these statutes go far beyond that notion,” Wells said. “Funerals are worthy of protection and respect, but to allow them greater protection than what is given to other gatherings or rituals is inconsistent with longstanding free speech principles.”

Wells said the combination of vague terms, unclear doctrine and controversial protests threatens to cloud the difficult task of balancing privacy and free speech rights and has caused state officials and courts to respond out of emotion rather than analysis of the Court’s precedents.

“These court decisions may have a lasting and detrimental effect on our free speech jurisprudence.” Wells said. “Most of us desperately want the Westboro Baptist Church to treat funeral goers with greater respect. As long as protesters’ speech is part of public discourse, free speech principles allow regulators to do only so much to require an outward showing of civility and respect.”

Wells’ research on the first amendment and funeral protest is slated for publication in the North Carolina Law Review, Vol. 87, 2008.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Key to Newspaper Survival is Putting Emphasis on Local

The world of newspapers has changed a lot in the past 10 years. Nationwide, larger newspapers with over 50,000 circulation are seeing subscriptions disappear. There is unrest in the industry. Smaller newspapers, which actually make up 88 percent of the industry, are worried about their bottom line too and fearful of competing in a digital world.

Well, John Schneller, a professor of journalism at the University of Missouri says "fear not!"

"It is the biggest newspapers that are in the biggest trouble," said Schneller at the Ozarks Press Association's annual conference. "Weekly newspapers have the voice of the community and the local franchise. In fact, they have what the larger newspapers want."

But weekly and small daily newspapers still need to do a better job of becoming the "community coffee shop." In order to do that, community newspapers need to reflect the community they serve. That means have a presence at the digital town square also.

One example of a newspaper that is doing a great job of being hyper-local is
Bluffton Today.

Morris Communications Corp. has begun publishing Bluffton Today, a tabloid newspaper tightly coordinated with a Web site, The hyperlocal publication will be distributed free in the namesake South Carolina community of about 15,000 people. Every reader will be invited to log onto the Web site and comment about stories, as well as start their own blog, upload pictures and even contribute recipes.

"Newspapers have gone on the Web by putting yesterday's news online," said Steve Yelvington, manager, Web site development for Morris. "That's a one-way street. We are doing the opposite; Participation is right at the center of what we're doing."

He added: " is a grand experiment in citizen journalism, a complete inversion of the typical 'online newspaper' model."

Readers' comments about stories will be edited and printed in the hard copy of the paper.

Success will be easy to judge, according to Yelvington. "People will be participating. The reality is people are doing this already, publishing their own Web sites and Web logs. The choice is not whether it will happen but whether we are going to participate in it."

Another thing that local newspapers need to work on is not telling people what they already know (reporting on things after the fact). Schneller says this type of reporting has a very limited value.

"Citizens have become a group that we talk about and not to. Newspapers need to lead the way with doing a better job and engage readers in our democracy," said Schneller.

Another example is the newspaper in Hannibal, Mo., which is going to be the subject of two later blog enteries here.