Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Save My Fort Worth Star-Telegram

"The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated." ~ Mark Twain

I loved that J.R. Labbe, deputy editorial page editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, wrote a rebuttal response for the recent article in Time magazine article listing the 10 Endangered Major Newspapers and ensuing chatter, news stories, and commentaries produced claiming the impending end of my local newspaper.

I want to focus on a section of her response that piqued my interest because, in my opinion, it sheds some light on the future for my hometown paper:

How information is delivered is secondary to making sure the information is available, because whether you want news in paper form on your driveway, downloaded to an iPod, tweeted on your cellphone or accessible on your laptop computer, a robust and competitive press is vital to our democracy.
Bloggers and other new-media news operations enrich the public dialogue. But the work of bloggers and twitterers and vloggers who are commenting on the news largely depends on the painstaking reporting that is supplied by traditional journalists.
Interesting. While acknowledging the necessity of a free press in society, she seems to hint that in order for a newspaper to stay relevant in today's technology enhanced landscape, it must find a way to insert itself in the conversation as opposed to just getting a conversation started. Yes, the informed community depends on traditional media outlets having the wherewithal and provide top-notch journalists to pay attention, research, report, and yes, even investigate the various news many of us have come to enjoy.

The problem is many people would just shrug if their local paper closed. Sometimes, it isn't even worth noting in the national media landscape. That is the bad news. The good news is this; papers like the Star-Telegram who explore opportunities to not just survive but rather adapt and change online, have a fighting chance if they make some smart moves.

The Star-Telegram is already doing some positive things from my perspective. By engaging the community through various blogs, providing multiple news RSS feeds and bookmarking/sharing tools, and most recently entering in some solid conversations on Twitter, The newspaper is showing that they have the propensity to change. But they should not stop there.

I don't know how to save a local newspaper as some others claim. However, I do know one thing that I would share to any business in trouble - your best thinking got you to where you are today. Why not try listening to your community?

Listen to Your Community
If they are willing to listen, I have a couple of suggestions for the Star-Telegram:
  1. Stop expiring articles to an archive - This is not hard. Unless their online archive system is bringing in a ridiculous amount of its revenue and it would cause irreparable hardship on the bottom-line, there is no reason to move content behind some pay-for content archive.

    Benefit - Bloggers, Twitterers, and Vloggers would then be able to re-purpose content beyond just initial intent to keep the conversation going. This enhances the community by providing quality and factual basis for user-generated content. Just as Labbe writes, "When there are no watchdogs, little good can happen. Someone has to be willing to stand up and challenge power, rattle people’s prejudices, debunk their paranoia and hold politicians and bureaucrats accountable." Let the community help in accountability especially since we live here too.

  2. Allow for comments on ALL news articles - This is not hard. I don't understand why news outlets don't automatically provide for comments on articles. Community feedback is an excellent measurement tool and would help in determining just how (if) reporters and columnists were connecting with readers.

    A quick glance at the Local News page on the Star-Telegram yields a view like this one:

    What's wrong with this picture? Quite simply it looks to me that the Star-Telegram is only interested in what I think about two articles. Why should a news outlet decide what I can or can't comment on? Just curious.
Be Better For Your Community
Will these two things save the Star-Telegram from itself? No, not in and of themselves. So why do them? Because of what they claim to be for Fort Worth and Tarrant County - "some of the most knowledgeable members of the community on a broad range of issues, people who have excellent writing and presentation skills, who directly connect their newspaper daily with the community they serve."

Since they understand that "bloggers and other new-media news operations enrich the public dialogue," the Star-Telegram should use those resources to help spread their content and not stifle the conversation. The newspaper needs to lose the mindset of being better than the community, but rather be better for it. The community wants them around for the next hundred years, we just want them to be better at what they do.

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