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