I returned from France in 1997 and decided I really had to take a shot -- at 33 -- at becoming a newspaper reporter. Luck, perseverance and a dash of talent made me one in suburban Chicago, and it was a great year. I moved on to manage a non-profit -- personally and professionally, a tragic mistake -- but was spared the inevitable disappearance of my job and probably my newspaper, along with most small-to-medium market newspapers.
So, I care maybe as much as former Ann Arbor News
reporter Mary Morgan does about the impending suicide by malfeasance of our local paper. She's got a lot to say about what might transform it into a business model that works and a journalistic platform that serves its community, and as much to say about why it probably won't happen. Read this if you care about your newspaper, large or small.
The Ann Arbor Chronicle | Column: What The Ann Arbor News Needs
No amount of spin will change the realities confronting The News, but there is hope. A smaller newsroom could produce a smaller newspaper that’s a must-read, tightly focused on local news and events. But to do that, the paper’s leadership needs to overhaul its own approach to doing business. Here are a few places to start:
* Don’t treat readers like idiots. Don’t tell people they’re getting more when they’re clearly not. ... You need readers on your side – employees too, for that matter. People will be advocates, even evangelists, for the the local paper, but not if they think you’re trying to swindle them with a product that costs more, delivers less and is being promoted as an upgrade. Everyone these days is dealing with the crappy economy – they understand you’ll have to make hard decisions. Don’t pretend it’s not happening.
* Don’t try to be everything to everyone. ...the paper still tries to cover a little of everything, both topically and geographically. With fewer resources, you need to hone your focus. And when you do, make sure your readers understand your goals.
* Communicate, communicate, communicate. If you don’t tell your story, someone else will. Vickie Elmer has been interviewing people for an article about changes at The News that’s scheduled to run in the January edition of The Ann Arbor Observer – it’s probably already being delivered to local households. If The News itself had been frank about what’s happening there, she wouldn’t have much of a story to tell. And I would be writing a much different column than the one you’re reading today.
* Get out of the office. Like anything else, loyalty is built through relationships. If people don’t know the decision-makers at The News, they’ll view the institution as just that – an institution, making it a far easier target to lampoon. Speak to community groups, reach out to people you don’t already know, make sure all the senior managers are involved in as many different community efforts as possible. It’s easy to develop a defensive bunker mentality when you don’t leave the building and when most of your conversations are held with others in the newsroom. Relationships shape reality, and when you don’t have deep connections to the community you cover, you can’t really understand what’s important to your readers.
The Ann Arbor News can emerge from its restructuring as a stronger, more relevant publication. But that won’t happen unless its leadership makes some fundamental changes in the way they operate. It’s not clear they’re willing to do that – even when it appears they have no other choice.