Hyper-Local Coverage and the Accidental Story By Darren Johnson email@example.com In the 1990s, I worked for a 2000-circulation newspaper in a region that had a lot of notoriety and a very literate population, apparently, and oftentimes I'd be covering a rather ordinary event -- say a field hockey game or a school board meeting -- and three or four other reporters would show up to also cover the same event. Here we all were, with notepads and cameras, all covering the same story that maybe only 50 – 100 tops – people in the whole world were interested in. And that audience then would be spread out over three or four newspapers. Yes, of course, my paper gave me more space for such local stories than the other papers with larger, and broader, readerships, but it still seemed like a waste of human resources all the same. It's no wonder – along with the lousy salaries – that few smalltown reporters stay in their positions after their 20s. After a while, a writer wants a real audience, not an exercise in futility. It's also kind of sad seeing a bunch of grown adults covering some Class D game with a bunch of kids running around some field as if it's the Super Bowl or covering some school board meeting about hiring extra hall monitors as if it's Watergate. Getting too local can be embarrassing for all involved. Yeah, everybody has a story, blah, blah ... In recent years, as "the death of print journalism" has loomed, newspapers – and all traditional media, for that matter – have responded by trying to become even more "hyper-local." If I go on Google News and search for my hometown, Schuylerville, the various daily newspapers that touch upon the region pop up, and nine out of 10 stories with that keyword will be of the hyper-local variety, mainly mentions of one high school sports team or the next. I'm sure the student-athletes and their parents – along with the Al Bundy's of the world who can't get past their old glory days of scoring four touchdowns in a game for Local High – clip the articles. Or do they? Upon further inspection, the articles mainly are rehashes of coaching reports. In many regions, coaches simply post such information on the web after a game. Wouldn't a 16-year-old midfielder be more likely to just hop on an iPad and look for the game recap? The traditional hyper-local stories are police reports. "Look at Zeke's kid – caught with meth – again!" a husband yells to a wife from the breakfast table, holding the morning Tribune. However, is a newspaper really the best way to get such info? The city I was raised in, Utica, has a police department Facebook page that has 17,000 likes and is tremendously entertaining. I haven't lived in the
city since age 18, but still have lots of friends and family there and regularly share police posts from that site with them. Recently, I was in that city and picked up the local newspaper, The Observer-Dispatch (where I also had done a high school internship-type experience as a kid), and was really disappointed. I had felt that I had read the paper already – most of the stories in that edition I had either seen on Facebook already or in the USA Today I'd picked up in the hotel the day before (both the O-D and USA Today are Gannett Newspapers, thus the repetition). Nothing was new to me. You can't spell news without "new!" Oh, yeah, there were a ton of high school sports capsules in that edition of the O-D I could not care less about. Funny, when I attended high school in the 1980s, I did play a few sports and my teams would rarely get mentioned in the paper – and Utica Free Academy was a big school. Even if my youth team went undefeated, it would be hard for the coach to convince the paper run a blurb about it. It was the opposite of hyperlocal. That said, most high schools had school newspapers back then. Much fewer do today. I guess, just like for over 100 years newspapers were delivered by kids, and then adults took over that responsibility, stories about junior varsity soccer used to be written by kids for their school papers but now are written by grown adults for adult newspapers. Sad. It's like the guy who wanted to be a grand artist in his youth who is now balding and twice divorced, doing graphic design for a small paper (Ha! Ha! I wonder if our graphic designer read that as he laid this story in?) [I DID AND I QUIT. LAY OUT YOUR OWN FRICKIN' PAPER. SIGNED, JIM.] I think as journalists, we have gotten into this mindset of being so hyper-local, writing stories for a small fraction of our audience, that we forgot that we also need to entertain the silent majority of readers who don't really participate in local events – but they do want a reason to pick up the paper. Hyper-local means dry and boring to them. People used to pick up papers for interesting color writers and columnists in the 20th century. Now a good writer of that sort seems hard to find in newspapers. A writer only has so much mental energy. If that gets zapped by devoting time to hyper-local stories and related blogging, then that writer's creative spirit withers. (Or is it whithers? I never could get that one right.)
The idea of devoting prime resources to hyper-local coverage is misguided; the goals of a media entity should be exclusivity and creating a lasting bond with the audience. Exclusivity means having stories that a reader can't get anywhere else, including the Internet.
Building a bond means that the reader really connects with at least a story and/or columnist here and there over time. Enough so that he comes back to the media entity and takes its content more seriously. Thus the advertisers’ ads get taken more seriously, and the advertisers get a greater return on their ad investments. This would make the advertisers want to come back to the media entity and help grow it financially. In the heyday of newspapers, perhaps such syndicated fare as "Dear Abby" or Erma Bombeck were entertaining enough to keep readers coming back. At the New York Metro papers, columnists and gossip writers gained huge followings. Now all of this material is available in various forms on the web. Who would actually write a letter to Dear Abby nowadays? Write it, put in in an envelope, drop in in the mailbox and then buy the paper each day to see if it's printed? And just to get a one-paragraph response from whomever is ghostwriting that drivel nowadays? Huh?! Just post the question on Yahoo! Answers and get a dozen responses, some reasonable, in minutes. But as a kid, I knew who "Dear Abby" was, as well as her sister, who wrote a similar column. Everyone knew of all of the top syndicated columnists, and even local columnists were minor celebrities of sorts. Today, few people can name any syndicated writers or even local ones, and the TV newscasters and morning zoo personalities also carry a lot less cachet. Perhaps people feel like they can start their own YouTube or Internet radio channels, or Word Press sites, so that specialness is gone. We all are Dear Abby on Yahoo! Answers. There's only one hope to save traditional media -- something I call "the accidental story." Facebook relies on this. The reader/viewer goes in not knowing what to expect, but knows something interesting will be there. With Facebook, you may log on at any minute and see Aunt Miriam's new set of pet photos (“Look, she put a Mr. T wig on Bowser the Cat!”), see that the local Burger King was robbed, see your local pols glad-handing or that it's your cousin's birthday. It's random and useful at the same time. The parameters of what you see on Facebook are your friends and likes, but what they post is totally out of your control. You expect zaniness from drunk Uncle Allen and anti-Obama rants from that kid you knew in fifth grade, but don’t know exactly what or when they will post. It’s like a controlled surprise. For fans of Howard Stern, a listener could tune in and there could be something sophomoric going on, such as a stripper IQ contest, or a really good, in-depth interview with an A-list celebrity, or Stern could just be making fun of one of his staff members. A listener does not know exactly what to expect, but does know that the day's show will have a certain vibe and flavor that's comfortable and provocative at the same time. It's like a small restaurant with 10 decent menu items, but a different special every day. Music radio still hangs on to a degree because it's boring just picking your own songs, say via hooking an iPod to your car stereo. With traditional or, better, satellite radio, you pick the genre, say classic
rock, but the DJ may toss a Bob Seger B-side in there once in a while to perk your ears up. These media entities know the sweet science of keeping your attention. Newspapers have lost that. I pick up papers in every little town that I visit, and watch other people read newspapers, including the newspapers I make, and there comes a point where you can see a reader really hunker down with a story. Take any commuter train into a major city during the morning rush and you will see this. The reader will fold the paper convincingly and develop a certain stare into an article to show that he is now committed to it. That happens when a reader encounters a story he did not expect to see in the paper. Perhaps it is a 1500-word piece on some trend he'd noticed casually but hadn't really crystalized in his head yet. Perhaps it is a really well-done feature on an interesting person. Maybe something completely off the wall – chimps using iPads! Or maybe it is a story that is just deeper than similar stories previously seen on TV or the Internet. For example, a newspaper can really delve into the psychology and sociology of why a serial killer murders. A TV channel can just give a couple of minutes to a story. Perhaps a good blogger could dig into a story, but there are so many bad bloggers out there, how does one find a good blogger? That requires the reader being proactive, whereas a newspaper is more of a passive relationship. There is no searching. What is in those 40 or so pages – that's it. If the editor is good, the copy is pertinent and decent. The other thing is, newspaper journalists almost always have better training and more access to experts than bloggers. So the accidental story is a story that the reader did not expect to find, but he becomes engaged when seeing it. Newspapers should strive to have those types of stories – a variety, as different people have different interests – where quality is key, rather than having good writers chasing down JV soccer coaches for a quote in the pursuit of being hyper-local. The engaged audience member will come back to the media entity again and again. It's a simple recipe somehow forgotten in modern times.