5 things I wish people knew about local newspapers

By Daniel Gaddy
Posted 9/2/18

Working at a news organization, you get used to criticism — lots of criticism.

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5 things I wish people knew about local newspapers

Posted

Working at a news organization, you get used to criticism — lots of criticism.

You often hear that you’ve taken quotes out of context, that you’ve downplayed a vital news story or that you’ve warped some minor one into a full blown scandal.

Much of that criticism is helpful. Many of the most important lessons I learned as a newspaperman came through colossal screw-ups that the public called out.

But in my 10 years of working at community newspapers, I’ve noticed a few misconceptions that keep getting repeated. I don’t address them on social media or in public because I don’t feel comfortable speaking for my paper, let alone an entire industry.

But, speaking as an individual, here are five things I wish people knew about a job I love: Reporters and editors don’t worry about how many papers we sell.

Of course we all want the company we work for to make money, but I’ve never known a reporter to fret over how many papers his article will sell. What we want is to produce stories that matter. Stories that expose injustice, that hold the powerful to account and that help readers live their lives better. And yes, we also want to win awards to quell our ever-present doubts about our career choices.

Even the top executives of community newspapers aren’t concerned with individual sales — they worry about subscribers. That’s the number they can show to potential advertisers, and a newspaper gets subscribers by providing consistent, trustworthy coverage.

Online ad revenue can’t begin to pay the bills.

There might be news organizations out there that can subsist solely on online ads, but hometown papers covering city council meetings aren’t part of that group.

There’s a simple reason for that: companies like Google and Facebook have flooded the online ad market.

It used to be that if you wanted to reach 25-year-old men in Calhoun County, Ala., your only choices were print/broadcast ads or a guy with a sandwich-board on Main Street. Now you can target 25-year-old single white men living in the 35626 zip code who really love Steely Dan. And you can do it for a lot less than an advertisement in the newspaper.

Take a typical online article as an example. It will make revenue somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 for every 1,000 people who read it. The newspaper I work for covers a county with a population of about 115,000. Even if everyone in the county reads one article a day, I bet we still wouldn’t make enough to pay the reporters. That’s not even considering what it would take to make a profit.

We’re not being negative; the world is just an awful place sometimes.

I often get requests for coverage that begin, “With all the bad things we see in your paper, I thought you might like to cover …” Every local newspaper covers, and will continue to cover, positive stories. They seem scarce because everyone — and I mean everyone — gravitates toward stories that a lot of people consider negative. Look at the top clicked-on stories for any community newspaper, and they’ll almost always be murders or car wrecks.

We’re reading the comments, and we’re taking it to heart.

The bylines in news stories represent actual human beings. Many of them are some of the finest human beings I’ve ever known. Despite every ounce of self-control we have, we’ll often read the comments. We’ll read that we’re barely literate “libtards” who are too stupid for any other line of work. Most times we can poke fun at commenters’ grammar and go about our lives. But when you have a constant stream of vitriol thrown at you, it wears down your psyche. It leaves you hating yourself, or feeling like the job you sacrifice so much for is pointless.

If we fail, that’s bad for everyone.

Most people think newspapers will one day die. If you mean that actual sheets of paper will stop coming to your door every morning, you’re probably right. But if you mean it in the sense that local news gathering agencies will cease to exist, I pray you’re wrong. Because a community loses a lot more than just another business when its paper closes; it loses any semblance of a local, objective source of information.

That community likely loses the only people who were attending government meetings and getting that information out to the public. I’ll put it this way: Do you trust your state representative, county commissioner or city council member wholly and blindly? Are you okay with not knowing how they make policy or spend public money?

However bad you think your hometown paper is, I promise you, actually having one is immeasurably better than the alternative.

Daniel Gaddy has been an assistant metro editor for The Anniston Star since 2013; he also covers local government in Anniston, Oxford and Calhoun County for the paper. He is a 2010 graduate of the community journalism master’s degree program taught by the University of Alabama in cooperation with The Star and supported by the Knight Foundation. He previously worked at the Daily Mountain Eagle in Jasper, his hometown.