There should be discussion in the media around the question: What is local news? There should be, but there isn't.
Here's why I believe it's important. For most media, local news is geographic. It's City Hall, Main Street, community events, crime and schools. On any given day in Racine, the local news is: a business opened or closed, a group of people got together, police made arrests, courts tried people arrested, the schools talked about getting better, and so on. It's rare there's a story that really knocks our socks off. Reading or watching the news is a passive activity.
There's another way. What if local media wrote stories that people actually cared about? That's not to dismiss any local efforts or stories ... they're all important. But are they most important issues in our lives at this moment? No.
So far as I know, there are wars going on in Iraq and Afghanistan (with local soldiers still on active duty). There's an historic presidential election underway. People are losing their houses on a regular basis. Millions of people are without health insurance. Gas prices are approaching $4 a gallon. Food prices are soaring.
I could go on, but in my experience, this is what people care about. Not to pick on the JT, but was the Carnauba's final flight Monday really the top headline in Saturday's paper?
Local is more than local. All across the country, community newspapers and TV stations have decided to secure their future by strictly focusing on issues in their backyards. Lee Enterprises talked about being "intensely local," a phrase that meant not bothering to focus outside of your coverage area.
What's wrong-headed about this approach is the imaginary walls it builds around readers. Here's a simple example: American Idol. I don't know specific numbers, but thousands of people in Racine County tune into the TV show (the most popular in the country) every week. They then talk about which of the Davids are better, or how Jason Castro made it so far in the competition. People actually care about the show and the people on it. (My wife and I get the same way about 'Friday Night Lights.' We actually have emotions for the characters and think about them long after the show is over.)
Is this stupid? Probably. Is it unimportant in the scheme of events occurring in the world? Yup. Is it what people are interested in? Absolutely.
American Idol is a local story. So is the war. So is the election. So is the quality of health care in our country and the subprime housing crisis. In some ways, those stories are far more "intensely local" than what's happening at City Hall, or even who is getting arrested. Think about what resonates in your life: Is it the police raid on Owen Avenue or the Brewers' Eric Gagne blowing another game? Is it the Carnauba or Hillary vs. Obama? A nurse being convicted of neglect or the cost of gas?
Newspapers are stuck in the idea of what it means to be a newspaper. They have the outdated idea that people's attentions are focused on their local community, with minimal glimpses outside of the geographic borders of their hometown/neighborhood/backyard. The globe is much smaller today. We know so much about what is happening in so many places, and we do it without even trying. We're saturated in a sea of information that dilutes our attention to one place. We quickly evaluate what's important, and dismiss what's irrelevant. It's not that we care less today, it's that we know there's so much more to care about.
Local media is reporting trifles in an era of life-altering events. We all feel the changes coming, and know they're not reflected in our media. (Actually, it's worse than ignorance by the media ... they're outright getting played.) So, alternatives are rising. At Racine Post, we're trying and learning how to be a better news source every day. The page you're looking at now is vastly different from the one we created back in October, and it will change again in the coming months. Hopefully, we can be a model for what local media can become.
Here are five things local media can do to become relevant (Note: This doesn't include coupons and ads, which is the main reason most people read the paper, according to readership studies):
1. Stop relying on the Associated Press for important stories. The AP sold its soul to online media like Google and Yahoo long ago. By the time AP stories are printed, we've read them online.
2. Start writing "national" stories about important issues. During the campaign, a story a day isn't too much. Use local people, use national people ... just make the news your own. We need more people writing about national issues, not a select few at a wire service. Same goes for the war ... folks, there's a WAR going on.
3. Broaden the idea of what's local. Everything is local now ... just run the best stories.
4. Stop using 800 words to write a story that can be told in 100 words, but write more 100-word stories. We're better served with eight short, clear stories than one droning piece (present pieces excluded, of course!).
5. Treat all politicians, at every level of government, as liars. Everybody knows how to spin these days, so you have to assume they're being dishonest when they tell a story. Either fact check everything they say, or don't rely on elected officials for news. (Or don't pretend to report news by re-writing press releases ... at RP, we run the press releases verbatim, so everyone knows it's straight from the horse's mouth. We're not going to launder their spin with the guise of a legitimate story.)