Connecting with readers helps American community newspapers to buck the trend

American participants of a media symposium said that their community newspapers were doing better compared to the metropolitan papers.

An uplifting sign in the on-going discussion about the role of newspaper today is that media professionals have more time to reflect on how they used to go about their business, and how they can reform in adapting to the changing conditions.

At the Third Sino-American Community Media Symposium recently sponsored by the Xinmin Evening News in Shanghai, the American participants said that their community newspapers were doing better compared to the metropolitan papers.

Al Cross, associate professor at the University of Kentucky, claimed the loss in revenue and circulation sustained by the American community newspapers was only half of what the metropolitan papers had to deal with. “The metro papers tried to be all things to all people, but in the newly fragmented media environment, the specifics outweighed the general,” Cross said.

As a result, metro papers are becoming more locally oriented, increasingly using community-journalism principles, and forging closer ties with their readers.

The other factors highlighted by the participants were that the community papers were less dependent on classified ads, and also their unwillingness to pamper the bankers and investors. This gave them a depth of meaning and civic mission. When community journalists became part of the community, they acted in the best interests of the community.

As a result, the readers see it as “their” paper, rather than just the paper. Such papers cover all aspects of community — culture, history, economics, community identity, community values, policy debates and public opinion. It is concerned with the social fabric of the community, and rises above the sensational stuff so competed for by metro papers.

Cross believes that the community papers used to be more dependent on revenue from their readers — and less on advertising, though today they are also trying to grow digital revenue.

Dennis Lyons, editor of The Daily Item and The Danville News, spoke about deepening interaction with the readers, like holding monthly meeting with community members, round-table discussions with community stakeholders before tackling an investigative report, interaction with community members via social media, and sponsoring multiple events in the community throughout the year.

A recent study by the American Press Institute came up with some important conclusions: People don’t just consume news today. They participate in it. They also pursue news on their own time, on their own terms.

Lyons believes that this trend presents an opportunity for publishers who are dealing with shrinking resources and growing competition. Now, more than ever, journalists should engage their readers as contributors, advisors, advocates, collaborators and partners.

Previously, high-flying journalists would rush to the “news” spot, having neither the energy nor volition to form a deeper engagement with the local community. Their success was gauged by their ability to shock, or entertain their audience. There was insufficient consideration of how their work resulted in meaningful change in their community.

As Lyons commented, connecting with the public was the last things they did for a story, rather than the first.

The perceived affinity to the readers also dictates how journalists today should interact with them.

“Will your questions inspire a thoughtful reflection that people can build on and improve their understanding, or a shallow reaction that could alienate them?” Lyons asked.

When people contribute ideas or material to your work, they are in essence co-creators, and have more incentives than others to look at the story, improve upon it, or share it.

One of the most important things is to become a familiar presence in the communities you serve. This enables you to have a more direct insight into the community’s evolving interests and needs. As a consequence, when you request something from a community which already knows you, they’re more willing to oblige.

Nicole Carroll, editor of The Arizona Republic, also shared her thoughts on how to cover larger geographic areas with smaller staffs, by targeting key audiences and doing fewer things better. “We will no longer see ourselves as a general-interest product, but rather as one that is focused on serving key audiences through a commitment to key topics,” she declared.

These insights are certainly revealing to some Chinese newspapers struggling with diminishing sales and readers.

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