InterCom spearheaded two important events this summer on the topic of local news, Breaking the News 1 and 2. It was an opportunity for us to reach outside our comfort zone a bit, and include the community in conversations we believe — and the public’s interest seemed to confirm — are essential to our long-term well-being.
We covered both of those events in earlier posts (BtN1 and BtN2), but the topic continues to drive personal and public conversations. Kalamazoo is a deeply connected and vocally passionate community with regards to what is happening here, as we learned from the participation we saw at both gatherings. We were especially pleased to have so many local editors, publishers and broadcasters join us. We think it speaks volumes about their commitment to their work and our shared story: Southwest Michigan Spark, Second Wave Southwest Michigan, Encore Publications (Encore Magazine and FYI), Midwest Communications (including The Touch, WKZO, The Fan, WVFM and WZOX), Women’s Lifestyle of Greater Kalamazoo, Vineyard Press (publisher of The Courier Leader and Paw Paw Flashes), WMUK, WMU Student Media, Welcome Home Magazine, Public Media Network and Good News Paper.
Here are a few things we learned:
Social media has changed everything, but can’t replace traditional news sources
Let’s face it: by its nature, social media is a biased information source. We surround ourselves with like-minded friends and perpetuate our shared opinions with the online equivalent of a public high-five — likes, favorites, shares, and retweets. Without a watchdog challenging our assumptions, we are all at risk of being the next Flint.
We miss the little things
Reporting on local sports and a lack of arts news and reviews are significant losses to our community. At the same time, we’ve discovered that many local outlets do offer extended arts and entertainment features. And some sports teams now publish their stories and stats online — WMU for example. What hasn’t been replaced is the quick access to vital statistics such as births and weddings. And we’d still love to find all these things in a single, daily, community-focused news source.
For every gap we identified, there’s an opportunity for some outlet to step up and cover it. Whether it’s a new dedicated publication or simply expanded coverage — of the arts, of births, of high school sports, for example — folks on the media side of the desk have an audience eager for more. And a ready audience is an easy sell to advertisers who need to reach these potential buyers.
There are a great number of niche publications and online vehicles to help tell your story
While there is no longer a one-stop, we-cover-everything single local news source, there are a number of local media outlets where you can pitch your story. Among those media folks who joined us, they represented 12 specialty publications — some big and some small. But there are others, including neighborhood newsletters, school newspapers, corporate bulletins, and many more. Of course, not all accept story ideas from the public, but many do. InterCom is working to develop a list of these that we’ll make available electronically.
How you reach your public has changed
Pitching specialty news sources means you’ll have to work harder make sure they indeed reach your stakeholders. The days of developing a single press release and distributing it to every local media outlet are gone. (Communication pros know this was never the preferred manner of getting your news out. Personal relationships have always mattered.) With fewer mainstream media available, reaching your stakeholders means developing a deeper understanding of how they consume their news. The next step is to develop relationships with those writers and editors, and then to package your stories in a way that makes it easy for them to use.
There is a need for media relations training
Within many small local organizations — especially area nonprofits — one person often oversees all aspects of marketing and communication. Not everyone doing this work has a background in media relations. The art of developing media relationships, crafting a “pitch,” and following up with the appropriate artwork, graphic files, and even broadcast or video support materials is new territory for some of these folks. We’re looking at ways to share our knowledge and teach best practices. We’ll be reaching out to partner organizations like ONEplace, which is the region’s go-to-resource for nonprofits, and local media outlets for help.
Among the ideas that emerged from our World Café-style conversation in August, here are two:
Seek new funding models
We live in an incredibly philanthropic community, so it was probably inevitable that one of the suggestions from Breaking the News 2 was a call for a private foundation to fund a local news source. The Guardian was cited as the most successful example of this model. (It should be noted, however, that since 2008 this no longer functions as a traditional trust. It is now a limited company.) Similarly, the idea of a participatory co-op model was suggested. We’re not sure where these ideas will lead, but we love the idea of a community-led response.
Develop a single-source for stories
Another request was for an Associated-Press-style repository for local stories — a single point of posting where media could go to scroll through the latest items and draw ideas for stories. The InterCom board agreed to take this idea and evaluate its viability over the next several months. We’re just beginning our research, so stay tuned.
Your input counts!
Finally, it’s also worth noting that these conversations won’t end. Regardless of the solutions we put in place today, new technologies and shifts in the market will undoubtedly change things again. At InterCom, we see our role as facilitating discussions about what’s happening, why, how it will affect our members and our community, and lending our expertise to help meet each change. We’d love to hear from you. If you have ideas, an opinion, or you need help from our community, please let us know!