- Kirsten Ballard
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This question was asked at the “Evolution of Local News” panel session at NAA mediaXchange 2016, by an attendee wanting to know how best to serve the unpleasant stories that nobody really wants to read, the boring, but important ones.
Jim Brady, founder and CEO of BillyPenn, suggests making a well-balanced meal.
“We write the fun stories, but we also write about what the marijuana laws mean for the state. I think we do a good mix, you have to have a good mix. Nobody wants to eat broccoli all the time,” he said.
For him, this means saying “Yes” to ideas that seem silly, or even, to him, terrible. But he lets his staff experiment, including assigning The Wire characters to politicians or writing a story in emojis.
“Our readers loved it because it was telling the same story in a new way,” he said.
For panelist Greg Barber, Director of Digital News Projects at The Washington Post, it’s simple: find a different way to cook the broccoli.
Barber suggests different story forms, engaging content and better writing. “If you think the story you are writing is dry, it probably is. It doesn’t have to lose any of its nutritional value, to continue the metaphor. The stories that are important are also interesting.”
But all three panelists agreed that it was time for local news to evolve.
Panelist Mark Tomasik, Editor of TCPalm.com and Treasure Coast Newspapers, has begun to explore with franchise journalism, where instead of covering a range of topics, he goes deep. He used the anecdote of the light rail coming through Florida.
“We treated it like a press release,” he admitted.
But then his readers reached out, explaining it wasn’t just a train to them; it would drop the value of their houses and potentially prevent emergency vehicles from reaching them in time.
“They were counting on us and we had to respond,” he said. He believes going deep, rather than broad, resonates with his community.
But franchise journalism comes at a cost. In order to go deep and do that meaningful journalism and spend that time, you have to say “No” to other stories. Readers and reporters have to adjust to a new way of doing something. Tomasik says everyone was used to a media organization doing a lot of things, but that it leads to mediocrity.
“To truly grow that audience, we found we needed to be consistently excellent every day,” he said.
At The Washington Post, the Capital Weather Gang achieves that excellence, according to Barber. Washingtonians begin their day with the Weather Gang, and not just for the weather, but for the community.
“They actually have one of the best, more interesting communities,” Barber said. The Capital Weather Gang discusses news, their lives and controversial topics.
The comment boards are full of commenters, but not the vile, journalism-hating commenters that so many journalists fear.
“Fifty-five percent of Americans have commented online,” Barber said. “They happen to be the more engaged, potentially more loyal versions of your readers.”
He recommends moderating and participating in comment boards, allowing the readers to learn about the writers and people behind the story.
“We have an opportunity to make that connection with our users. Right there on our site, we’re real people,” he said.