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Friday, February 4, 2005

I was reminiscing earlier today about my first newspaper job -- in a city where four daily papers' circulation areas overlapped, and how that was such an exciting place to work. Now the Internet makes "circulation area" bigger than ever. The New York Times and Washington Post overlap with Knoxville's News Sentinel.

Unfortunately, what doesn't overlap is the "coverage area" that used to go along with circulation -- if you could sell the paper there, you felt it a requirement to deliver some local news.

Newspaper readership, public interest, income and profit margins are such that it doesn't pay today to put an office of the Nashville Tennessean -- or even the Maryville Daily Times -- in downtown Knoxville. (Or have I just missed them? I'm new here.) Heck, at first glance, when it comes to this end of the state, it looks like the Tennessean even needs the Associated Press to tell it Dolly Parton has the flu. As for circulation, you can buy the capital-city paper at some places in Knoxville, but I haven't had any luck finding a newspaper-in-education deal to get my students the Sunday Tennessean for a semester.

My competing-newspapers old days were where my addiction to deadlines stared. There was always a story to follow, a hole that the other paper left in its report or some facts you couldn't get in time for yesterday's edition. You didn't even have to be that good at it. (I was learning, at least.) The main thing was that at least two of the four papers, and the local radio station, were committed to local coverage -- perhaps too much of it was "procedural" and boring, but we had plenty of it.

How much? Even in a 20,000 person city 30 miles from the main office, the Hartford Courant had 10 part-time correspondents filing daily "chicken dinner" stories from surrounding towns, and three or four full-time reporters covering city hall, local schools, boards, courts, fires and police. We were spread thin to provide seven-day coverage, and the local paper didn't have many more reporters, but the competition kept things moving. (That local paper is still there, 30 years later, by the way, having outlasted the now chain-owned Courant's local presence -- or so it looks from far away.)

So how many reporters does it take to cover a city? Can TV or bloggers provide the competition to keep one local paper's staff on edge, looking for that missing story, that new angle, doing their best work?

"Somebody else," "loveable liberal" and other readers of SouthKnoxBubba's weblog had comments today that should be discussed in our journalism classes. The ones I found most interesting were about basic news reporting. (The main issue in the blog had to do with a local columnist shifting focus, but opinion writing isn't the course I teach. The number and variety of opinion writers on the paper's staff is another issue.)

Here are some samples from the two readers mentioned above. I'll ask around the journalism school next week to see whether folks agree with these anonymous blog-readers' observations:

02/04/05 15:33

The News Sentinel simply doesn't have any reporters anymore. That is what's wrong. Judging from by-lines, there couldn't be more than 7 or 8 reporters in editorial. (not including business) I've noticed lots of cross-department writing and people writing outside of their beats. Bledsoe wrote two articles about health care the other day. He is the music/tech reporter.

There appears to be only ONE reporter covering education, ONE reporter covering ALL the courts, ONE reporter covering health, ONE reporter covering the ENTIRE county govt., ONE reporter covering the ENTIRE city govt., and so on. I also notice that they use interns extensively. The living section appears to be in it's death throes. Lately, it has taken to just doing "how-to" lists that aren't really written along with syndicated columns. I think local content is not written by staff writers.

How are any of these people supposed to cover the bare happenings within their beats AND do heavy investigative journalism?

There is a dark belief playing out deep in the hearts of high-level decision makers---the suspicion that print newspapers are a dinosaur. They are clearly nervous about investing in any area that doesn't offer an obvious return on the money.

Without reporters, and hence, content, they are left with simple marketing to convince people to buy the newspaper. Perhaps graphic design will convince people to buy a paper even without news content? I think there is also some snobbery at play. We don't really understand hard-hitting news stories down here in the south, heck, we buy the paper for the sports, cartoons, movie times, and sales ads anyway.

Look how upset everyone here is about the content of the newspaper. You people really care about it and wish it would improve. You see that it is important to have a newspaper and I think you would support it if you saw that it was interested in community issues that impact citizens.

I think they are giving up on it in their hearts before you people are. That is really sad. Newspapers with news content are vital for communities, and that includes being able to report without fear of repercussions from business leaders.

Tying every good thing to money is where we all went wrong in this country. Letting stockholders experience the wet dream of the 90's stock prices, and having them want to re-experience it at whatever cost. On an international level, this greed has led to a large trade deficit that has economists shaking in their shoes.

--- "somebody else"

02/04/05 16:44

The Sentinel has been a wire-service paper for years - I remember when "News of the World" fit everything outside the U.S. into four or five small blurbs of one paragraph each. Small newspapers everywhere are killing themselves off. They pretend to cover their communities with one editor who has to put together several different papers and thus seldom leaves the office. That means local content, which is the only reason to prefer a small paper to a national one, shrinks to nothing, and the paper is no longer essential reading in town.

--- "lovable liberal"

(End of quote)

Maybe it's just that there's no profit (or interest) in local news. Maybe these bloggers and blog readers can fill in the gap? Having the interest is one thing; having the time, the skill and a way to pay the rent are important, too. This reminds me of Phil Meyer's comments last semester:

"If we are to preserve journalism and its social-service functions, maybe we would be wise not to focus too much on traditional media... We should look for ways to keep the spirit and tradition of socially responsible journalism alive until it finds a home in some new media form whose nature we can only guess at today."

7:05:32 PM    

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