“Your product is community connected-ness, not your stories.”
At times, you could hear a pin drop when Tom Rosenstiel spoke to a couple hundred news executives at Stanford on Saturday. He is the executive director of the American Press Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that has always been an industry leader. On Saturday, his message was that our old “on the record” process-oriented journalism model is doomed. It’s a bitter pill for many of us who have been doing this a long time and think we are honor bound to present a full meal with a healthy diet of vegetables for readers who no longer have to stomach them.
Rosenstiel isn’t just bloviating when he speaks about the state of our business. He comes to it with loads of research. Before coming to API, he was founder and director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism at the Pew Research Center and co-founder and vice chair of the Committee of Concerned Journalists.
His point is that the worth of the Half Moon Bay Review and the Williston Herald and the rest of our titles is not found in our pages necessarily but in our places as institutions in our respective communities. If we have earned trust, built relationships, set the agenda, we will continue to have a place.
If, on the other hand, we think of ourselves as chroniclers of what happened at that meeting last night that no one attended, well… We are clinging to a sinking ship. He shared research that showed big enterprise and even stories that showed a little initiative continue to draw eyeballs. There is hope if we let go of the Titanic….
“Incremental stories are hurting us,” he said bluntly. “You have known this for 10 years.”
Here’s my takeaway. Rosenstiel isn’t telling us to abandon all meeting coverage. The beat isn’t dead. But our response to those meetings and regular calls must change.
Say you go to a city council meeting tonight. You have two approaches. You can write it up like this:
In a 4-1 vote the Sierra Vista City Council voted to change its land use policies to include a zone for small businesses run in manufactured homes…”
Or you can go to that meeting, meet the players and envision what this thing means to actual people. Maybe come up with something like this:
Joe Staley has always run a barbershop of sorts out of his mobile home just off of Fry Boulevard. Now he can do it legally and become part of what business leaders hope is a new wave of micro-entrepreneurs in the county…
Those are obviously hypothetical. But do you see where I’m going? We can’t cover incremental stories from boring meetings. We can’t simply be the recorder of arcane government “action.” If we do so, our business will die in obscurity. There is a reason nobody attends those meetings.
Think about ditching outmoded beats like “cops” and “education” and replacing them with franchise topics that you will own, things that are demonstrably important in your community. They might be families or recreation or the environment or hunting. We are uniquely positioned to deliver what our communities want. It’s time we did that.