His segment prompted a negative response from David Chavern, the president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, which in turn prompted remarks from journalists such as Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post, who pointed out that Chavern missed the point of Oliver's segment.
As somebody who has written for small-town newspapers for 20-plus years, I have observed changes in technology and approaches to news gathering and have had multiple ideas bounce through my head about what local newspapers can do to survive in a changing world. I know that technology is making this difficult. I know that print ad revenues have plummeted and online ad revenues haven't been enough to make up the difference.
But there is a pattern I've seen developing with local newspapers and the companies that run them. Everyone who writers for these papers, it seems, is expected to blog, post to social media, take photos and shoot video at every single event they cover or related to every single story they write. In other words, they are told to do the same things as everybody else.
Those who head up these companies see people using video to cover events, so they expect newspaper reporters to do the same. These company heads see that certain social media platforms have become popular, so reporters are expected to jump into them and figure it out. They hear about certain subjects that are trending over the Internet, so they instruct reporters to follow those subjects. They see certain YouTube videos are popular and they want reporters to cover those things.
But as Oliver pointed out in his segment, there is a difference between what is important and what is popular. And what is important can be a local issue that people may not think much about until they have to. There may be no better example than the water contamination in Flint, Mich., in which part of the story goes back to what happened at the state level, but was, for the most part, a local issue. As this article from Media Matters indicates, local media outlets were asking questions long before it became a national issue. Credit also goes to LeeAnn Walters, a Flint resident who started asking questions and pursued her own investigation. But the local news outlets got the ball rolling from the media side of things.
And that's another point Oliver brings up: So much of the news shared by national media outlets, whether they are TV, websites or his own show, comes from what local outlets -- namely local newspapers -- report. Take that part of the equation away and there's less source material for the national outlets.
Oliver also brought up that people who consume news are as much to blame. They have become used to getting news for free. What they may not realize is how the news gets to them. Some may think the national media gathers it from the start, and while a few national websites do that, the majority do not. They rely on local outlets for major news events that emerge on a local or state level, rather than a national level. And while people may think first about the national scene, they need to realize that state and local events can impact them, too.
I don't have any easy answers for how local newspapers can get readers back, but I do know this: The worst thing owners and publishers can do is follow the herd. When they do that, every news outlet looks the same. Potential readers see no difference between what is offered among sites and have little to no incentive to pay for it. These readers may become devoted to particular sites, but that doesn't mean they'll pay for the content.
Another thing I know: If an outlet is going to get readers to pay for content, it needs to think outside the box and not just follow the latest trends. And some of that "out-of-the-box" thinking may require revisiting old methods for gathering news while incorporating new methods.
So here are some of my suggestions for what owners and publishers of newspapers should keep in mind when they try to figure out how to adjust to the changing landscape.
* Remember that, because the business is changing, you aren't going to generate large profit margins right away. Therefore, you better prepare to invest money in another type of business in which you stand a better chance of generating a large profit margin. Jeff Bezos, who has done well with Amazon, bought The Washington Post and, while his ideas haven't always been great (as Oliver notes in his piece), his primary business (Amazon) is doing well and his innovations with that business have mostly worked. That allows him a business that can make enough profit to compensate for a lower profit margin, or even a loss, with the Post, until he finds the best model so the Post stays profitable. (To the Post's credit, they have a subscription model that appears to be working.)
* Remember that real journalists are not in the business of telling people what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. That includes everyone from the local citizen who complains about "too much bad news" to the investor who isn't in the community but doesn't like anything negative reported about whatever investing he pursues, even if the investor himself isn't a specific focus. If something isn't on the up and up, reporters need to look into it. Don't force them to walk a narrow path because you don't want to upset somebody.
* When you talk about "local issues," think of it in terms of what's important to that community, not to communities in general. Some communities love their high school sports teams, but others are more interested in the local college, or may be interested in a junior college. And every community is going to be impacted by local issues; the trick is to make sure your reporters understand what those issues are and can explain why the local residents need to know about them. In some cases, that takes time and resources, so be prepared for the costs involved with that and don't look for excuses regarding the budget.
* With that said, make sure to weigh the cost and benefit of any decision made. For example: If sending a reporter several miles to follow on a lead about a local issue will cost $1,000, but yields a long-term benefit of gaining more readers that increases revenues over time, it's worth the $1,000. On the other hand, spending $100,000 on transforming a product to be "all digital" is too much money risked with no guarantee of gaining new readers, while risking that current readers stop reading the paper.
* Don't just have your reporters do something because everybody else is doing it. Social media can be useful, but asking reporters to show they devoted a certain amount of time to it isn't productive. They should only use social media when they have something worth sharing, not just to remind people they are alive. And while there could be times to utilize videos, they shouldn't be the primary focus. For example: There's no point to having a newspaper reporter shoot video if there are already multiple TV stations covering something, but if a newspaper reporter is first on the scene, it could be useful to have the reporter shoot a video at the start, then proceed with further news gathering duties. The latter gives readers the impression that the reporter is on top of things and can be trusted to get the news. The former makes the reporter look like a copycat.
* If everybody is doing it, you may want to ask yourself if you should be doing it, too. The "what's trending" widgets for websites may look cool, but there's no evidence they draw readers to one website and only one website. Unique content is more likely to do so than widgets which every website likes to utilize.
* Don't become dependent on certain forms of print advertising. The circulars that used to appear in every paper in the past are being phased out, so be prepared to go without that revenue and think of new ways to generate revenue. And don't just regurgitate general ideas from the corporate world. Pay close attention to what interests local readers and focus your efforts there. It may not guarantee success, but your chances are greater than if you follow general ideas without knowing if local readers have interest in them.
* Remember that the best news stories come from the areas that sound boring on the surface, but could lead to something bigger and that is of great interest to readers. I'll admit I'm not the biggest fan of attending city council meetings, but I can tell you that, when I worked the city beat in Rocky Ford, Colo., many years ago, I got more of my major news stories by showing up to those meetings than I did by sitting in an office and waiting for somebody to walk in the door. Technology hasn't changed that. Showing up to the meeting not only allows you to find out what's going on with the council, but who else is attending and what issues they bring that might be significant to the local readership.
I have no guarantee that these things will turn around every local newspaper, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be implemented. But if paper owners and publishers want the best chance of success, they need to accept that they can't just follow the herd. It may appear to be less risky than forging your own path, but forging your own path gives you a better chance of standing out from the herd.