Newspapers: Find your essence

Moments after posting the news about the the Daily Mail doing without a TV critic (below), I read Lucas Grindley on another paper getting rid of its movie critic and NFL writer, among others, . . . because they are not local and newspapers, at their essence, must be local. Amen to that.

The managing editor for the Winston-Salem Journal was faced with the need to cut his budget. And when looking around the newsroom, he saw the same thing all of us do. Duplication of efforts. So the Journal’s film critic and NFL writer were laid off.

Local film critics for national movies are a vestige of different times. For most markets, there’s no local angle to Mission Impossible 3.

Reassign your reporter now, before it’s too late, to something that might attract new readers. I wonder what the Journal’s managing editor would have covered if he had reassigned that film critic a year ago.

Maybe you’re the film critic. Don’t wait around for this same fate. Convince your editor to use wire copy so you can cover something else. Because when it comes time for the editor to look around the room for cost savings, your beat needs to be local and indispensable.

Sports writers, listen up. If you’re not writing something more than the game story, then you’re next. An editor can get that same gamer from the wire.

Features writers, if what you’re covering is on the wire regularly, then your beat isn’t local enough. Food is a national topic. Travel is a national topic.

Business writers, you’re not immune either. Prominent media types are already advising newspapers to “outsource” all types of coverage.

Death by a thousand cuts. A slow death is happening as newspapers lose writers. Don’t let positions get cut because you didn’t have enough foresight to realize they were being wasted. Maybe circulation declines wouldn’t be so steep today if we’d ensured every beat in the room was local, and couldn’t be replaced by wire copy.

Now read the managing editor of the paper, Ken Otterbourg, writing on his blog about the cutbacks:

We were one of the smallest newspapers to have a full-time film critic, and we enjoyed that distinction. But there’s plenty of excellent film criticism out there that we can use for nationally released movies. We’ll still occasionally review movies with a local tie-in. By contrast, nobody else is covering the local board of education or the city council. It’s unique content. So in making our decisions, we were guided by our belief that what we can do best is cover Winston-Salem, Forsyth County and Northwest North Carolina. That’s where we think our future lies, being a metro paper with a strong community focus.

Here are a few posts where I’ve been pushing newspapers to boil themselves to their essence. But Lucas Grindley is right: This is about making shifts and investments now, before it’s too late.

  • I’m just a reader here but this approach would torpedo my subscription to the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s the voices in the newspaper that keep me reading, be it Mick LaSalle as film critic, Joshua Kosman as classical music critic or Jon Carroll as progressive columnist. Lose those guys and the Chronicle becomes just another newspaper i.e. the San Jose Mercury News.

    And if the paper instead goes with more local coverage, I live in the suburbs not San Francisco. So better coverage of San Francisco board of education meetings, if such a thing exists, is useless.

    We get two free weekly papers with much local coverage of the towns I live near. And I have to say they are so boring I’ve stopped reading them. I want voices, not facts.

  • Jimmy

    I can see both sides of this issue. I understand papers need to be hyper-local, to have an invested interest in their communities, but how does using canned wire stories help the paper? Even if it’s an online paper?

  • It’s great! I remember…

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  • You’re right; film and food and travel are national.

    Unless, of course, someone covers them as a local phenomenon. And then they can be intensely personal.

    Film critics can easily cover the revolution of what’s happening on PCs as people become their own filmmakers.

    Food writers can easily cover the food of their local towns instead of trying to do umbrella holiday stories.

    And travel, well… travel always starts local, doesn’t it? After 9/11, the travel beat became relevent again as it helped millions of daily travelers navigate changes to their airport routines.

    It isn’t the beats that are necessarily national. It’s how you cover them.

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  • This seems to be an argument in favor of critics becoming bloggers and newspapers cutting ad sharing deals with the more successful ones. Or critics/bloggers trying to go it alone.