Newspapers Have Forgotten How to Use Local News

Article excerpt

THE BATTLE TO save the daily newspaper from obliteration appears more difficult with each passing day.

In fact, every time a new technology surfaces to disseminate news, the daily newspaper must reappraise its reason for existence.

We must continue to search out the role we should play. Invariably we must focus much of our energy on local news, for without enough of it, newspapers would be dead. However, do we still know what to do with local news?

After 25 years of working for 12 daily newspapers and participating in several projects to help readership, including doing extensive research, I still find newspapers making the same mistakes: primarily, failing to handle local news properly. It's an old problem but getting worse. Some editors still have trouble understanding what is important to play in a newspaper, and what shouldn't be overplayed.

Although newsapers will never be the dominating force they were 30 years ago, they can still compete and make a profit in today's market doing what they do best -- reporting local news. Newspapers have other problems, but to move forward, newspapers must give local news priority. I believe there is no such thing as too much local news. Without local news, even the New York Times would have a marketing problem.

Even though the Times is portrayed as an international newspaper, it obviously knows it would cease to exist without local news. In fact, the Times editor work hard on maintaining a local image.

How newspapers play their local news is also important. It sounds simple, but many newspapers have plenty of local news but don't play local news properly. Some are of the accord that a wire story should always be the lead, no matter where it comes from.

Seldom are their international stories of the magnitude of the Berlin Wall falling or the collapse of the communist government in Russia. But some daily newspapers seem to want to use international and national news every day, no matter where it comes from or how important it is on that particular day.

Some researchers believe national and international news should rarely be used on page one. I strongly support that rule regardless of the size or commitment of the newspaper.

One unmistakable error that happens in almost all newspapers is that they report the same news that appeared on television the night before or, in some cases, the day before.

Newspapers can never compete with television when it comes to national, breaking news -- never. A newspaper can localize a national story, but it should never lead with the top wire story, especially after the story has been bled dry on TV the night before. This is expecially true for morning papers; crucial for afternoon papers.

A prime example of day-old front-page news was the piece on drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, whom police killed in Colombia. The story moved early in the afternoon on Dec. 2 and was played over and over again by television all that afternoon and that night. It was worn out by morning, but almost every local newspaper I looked at carried the story at the top of page one, along with the story of the movement of the space shuttle Endeavor.

Both stories easily could have gone inside and indeed should have. A good local story should have gone outside. Even a bad local story would have been better.

This is a mistake the daily newspaper has never overcome, and it had better. My advice to the daily newspaper that wants to survive is: never put a national or international wire story at the top of page one unless it's a story that television has not reported, and even then I would be still looking for a local lead. Newspapers must never go head-to-head with TV. Newspapers must always go in a different direction.

Newspapers must also learn to localize national stories. A Newspaper must condition the reader to expect a different view of the world than what he gets on television. …

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