From trying to cover it all to covering what matters

“His reporters are usually maxed out with news from yesterday and today. But those daily stories rarely are the ones readers bring up when they stop him at the park.”

Next year, faced with yet another cut to the newsroom budget, the editor of a small or mid-sized newspaper somewhere in the United States will decide to upend decades of industry convention: He will throw away beats based on broad topic areas and government institutions, and he’ll direct reporters to focus on a few select areas where they can make a difference.

In other words, he’ll restructure the paper to look like a local nonprofit newsroom.

His decision (even though it’s 2018, most newsroom leaders are still men) will be opposed by the publisher, other newspapers in the corporation, some reporters and editors, and many readers — at least, the ones that make their opinions known. His boss will ask why he doesn’t run another play from the newspaper downsizing handbook:

  • Institute a hiring freeze and don’t fill positions when people leave for new jobs or retire.
  • Layoff a few experienced reporters and tell others to add those beats to their workload.
  • Encourage a high-profile columnist to retire, but ask her to keep contributing on a freelance basis so readers won’t notice.
  • Cut the last statehouse reporter, which will save not only a position but rent for the bureau.
  • Move a longtime projects or investigative reporter to a daily beat.
  • Trim the copy desk again. Make the top editors deal with more daily copy.

The goal of those moves is to make the newspaper’s diminished journalistic capacity invisible to readers. But they’ve noticed. They say so in phone calls and emails: “You used to cover this school board/our small town/those kinds of issues in my community. And now you don’t.”

It’s true. This editor already merged the federal and the local courts beats into one job. Then he cut that position and asked one of the crime reporters to handle major cases as best she could. In practice, that means no one writes about even the high-profile murder trials that at one time were covered on a daily basis.

The education reporter has been expected to cover the local universities for years, and now he’s supposed to produce an occasional healthcare story. The opinion staff was eliminated; the editor splits the responsibility of writing editorials with a few others and relies on a clerk to deal with readers’ letters. The city hall reporter covers four or five different local governments. One of the police reporters comes to work at 6 a.m. to freshen up the website with crime and traffic news.

Bit by bit, this editor has overseen the transformation of his newsroom from subject-matter experts to generalists, similar to the local TV station. He went from a man-to-man defense to a zone, and now he has decided he won’t play the daily news game anymore.

So he’ll gather the reporters and tell them they no longer have to try to cover the waterfront. Instead, he’ll instruct them to focus on three or four ongoing issues — something with a life cycle beyond a couple stories, but narrower than a beat like “education” or “city hall.” Those issues won’t have to be on the agenda of government officials — in fact, he wants them to look for things that aren’t. He’ll caution that this doesn’t mean the end of daily deadlines, at least not every day. Reporters will cover these issues with a mix of longer, enterprise stories and shorter, incremental ones.

It won’t be hard for reporters to come up with their lists. They’ve all had the experience of starting to chip away at a significant story, only to be pulled away for something else. There are exceptions, of course; the editor is proud that despite the cuts, the newspaper still publishes a few marquee investigations every year.

In making this change, the editor will be taking a cue from nonprofit newsrooms. They’ve sprouted up in communities where reporters are stretched so thin, they can’t spend the time looking into a corruption tip. These newsrooms aim not to replace newspapers and TV but to fill gaps in coverage. Nonprofits must carefully choose how they spend their time because they’re too small to try to do it all. Sometimes, when they get a big story, newspapers and TV stations grab onto it; other times, they’re surprised other media don’t even try to catch up.

The editor has had to decide whether to chase those stories. His reporters are usually maxed out with news from yesterday and today. But those daily stories rarely are the ones readers bring up when they stop him at the park. They remark about the ones that shine a light on local corruption, hold officials accountable, and show how other communities are solving problems like theirs.

The editor’s gamble is that there are enough of these stories to become the focal point of the newspaper and website every day.

He’ll announce the change on the front page. It won’t be another story that glosses over downsizing by announcing a strategic pivot or a big project. He will explain that the newspaper has refocused itself to do original, fact-based reporting that creates change in their communities. Some readers will respond: “I thought that’s what you were supposed to do.”

Others will be angry, saying the newspaper has finally given up. But savvy readers know the paper has been giving up bit by bit for years. They see it in the four-page metro section, in the churn of superficially reported stories posted online.

This editor knows the risks of this change. Will it spur readers to cancel their subscriptions? He’s essentially redefining the product they buy every day, asking them to shift what they value: Do they want a package of things that happened recently, or do they want sustained coverage that seeks to solve longstanding problems?

He’ll have to go out in the community to convey the value of this approach — part mission statement, part sales pitch. He’ll tell them the newspaper is now doing the work he had said it was doing all along.

It will be easier to make the case to readers after his newsroom starts working on the stories that were on the back burner. The change will reinvigorate reporters and editors, who will feel like they can finally do the jobs they were told they had. They’ll walk in the newsroom every day with one thing on their minds: What problem will I help my community solve today?

They will write their stories differently. Before, their stories were almost all news and reaction. Now they will be rich with context, analysis, and background — all the things they couldn’t find room for in the daily digest.

And they’ll develop expertise again. They’ll be able to reuse knowledge from one story to another rather than starting over as they bounce from topic to topic. They’ll follow stories as they cross from one topic area to another. They need not worry about whether a story is on the city hall or education beat. They’ll become guides to their communities.

Will this approach stop the circulation declines? Maybe not. The editor knows that. But, he figures, at least it will push this community toward a more functional, thriving future by focusing not on what happened, but what matters.

Steve Myers is editor of The Lens and a Nieman Fellow.

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