In the last few days, I’ve read two online stories about what newspapers might do — either online or in print — to make themselves more relevant to many people.
One of the pieces was written by Robert Niles of OJR: The Online Journalism Review. Niles is a web site creator and a former newspaper web editor. He suggests that papers focus on five “beats”: food, education, the workplace, business and faith.
Those are the beats, he says, that “best reflect the activities of readers’ daily lives – the ones most likely to elicit a connection between reader and publisher.”
In his revolutionary approach, Niles’ would have newspapers jettison their sports sections, which he says are not moneymakers, and “leave the pro and major college teams to ESPN.com and the many team bloggers now covering them.”
As for government coverage – long a hallmark for newspapers – Niles says: “Yes, we need journalists to cover government, but assigning government (or politics) as a distinct beat segregates government from the communities it serves. A local news publication needs to cover government by having each of its reporters cover government within the context of his or her beat, and not by leaving that task to an individual reporter or team.”
Niles’ ideas are interesting, but I don’t think I’d run to the yard every morning to get a paper that had food and faith as two of its main coverage areas. I’ve got to hand it to Niles, though, he’s steering sharply away from the old Gutenberg.
The other writer, Alan D. Mutter, is a former newspaper man who now specializes in corporate initiatives and new-media ventures. He writes a consistently interesting and informative blog called Reflections of a Newsosaur.
In his most recent blog entry, which first appeared in the October issue of Editor & Publisher Magazine, Mutter says that newspapers should stop chasing the national, international, entertainment and sports stories “that ricochet around TV, radio and the Internet” and focus on ”unique, local stories that distinguish their products from all other competitors.”
Here’s the formula that he urges publishers to adopt: ”Pick stories of sweeping significance to your community, report them completely, tell them compellingly, pursue them relentlessly and play them effectively. Repeat as necessary.”
I can relate more easily to Mutter’s theory than I can to that of Niles. And it seems to me that our daily paper, The Kansas City Star, is moving in the direction that Mutter suggests.
Consider three recent stories that The Star has featured on its front pages.
:: Mike McGraw’s and Glenn E. Rice’s sensational piece on Sunday, Oct. 31, laying out their theory on the 1970 murder of civil rights and political leader Leon M. Jordan. As I said in a Nov. 1 blog entry, I think that piece — and a follow-up on the man the reporters believe engineered the killing — will get consideration for a Pulitzer in investigative reporting. However, I think the odds-on favorite for the investigative Pulitzer will be the Memphis Commercial Appeal’s Marc Perrusquia, who was able to establish that a friend and close associate of Martin Luther King Jr. was also an FBI informant.
:: Joe Lambe’s and Don Bradley’s Nov. 13 story about the goofy scheme that four young men concocted to steal more than $62,000 from a U.S. Bank branch in Overland Park. One of the participants was a 20-year-old teller who agreed to be “kidnapped” and punched in the nose to make the job look authentic. This is not the kind of story you get very often out of Johnson County, and The Star didn’t let the opportunity slip away.
:: Laura Bauer’s reflective and uplifting weekend stories on what it’s like to be a teenager these days. This is the most creative and insightful look I have seen about this generation of youngsters. The first of what will be three installments over the next several months kicked off Sunday, straddling the front page and Star Magazine.
Bauer’s front-page story examined the various pressures that young people are under to be constantly connected with and fully accepted by their peers. It opened with the courageous account of a 13-year-old Independence girl who recently got a text message that said: “You don’t belong at this school. You need to go back…Get your own life and stop trying to be one of us.”
Among other things, the story cited a recent study that said nearly half of high school students reported having been bullied in the past year. Another study said that one in four teens reported having a mood, behavior or anxiety disorder.
Even though I am a substitute teacher and see a lot of young people, the story was eye-opening to me. I had no idea that so many students are being bullied and struggling desperately for acceptance.
But then, in the Star Magazine component, Bauer gave us the flip side – the joy of being a teenager. Bauer homed in on nine students. She asked them, among other things, what a passerby might say about them – what the stranger’s assessment of them might be. One girl said she thought the stranger would see her as “vulnerable.” A boy said he thought he would be seen as “very confident.” A Muslim girl said the stranger might wonder if she was a terrorist.
In keeping with the freewheeling feel of the story, photographer Jill Toyoshiba let the students recommend where and how they wanted to be photographed. One girl, the one who said she would be seen as “vulnerable,” was photographed in a tree. Another boy, a 14-year-old Rockhurst student who designs dresses, was holding a woman’s pink, high-heeled shoe in his right hand.
(Unfortunately, I couldn’t locate the individual photos and profiles in The Star’s electronic library and was not able to link to them here.)
In my opinion, this story was wildly unconventional and wildly successful. It could have been goofy, but it wasn’t. Bauer and Toyoshiba allowed the students to reveal themselves, but they created parameters within which the students could frame themselves.
All three of those stories — the Jordan killing, the US Bank heist and the teen profiles – hit Mutter’s benchmark of a story of “sweeping significance” to our community, in my opinion.
The first gave us the answer to a 40-year-old mystery that has haunted many Kansas Citians. The second made us worry about what’s going on in the heads of some of our younger people. And the third gave us hope that a majority of our teenagers will grow up to reshape our community in dynamic and unpredictable ways.