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The Trust

Restoring the Trust
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Small Papers Have a Big Place
on the News Media Spectrum
Daily Encounters with Readers Reinforce Trust

Peggy Kuhr, Knight Chair in Journalism, University of Kansas


‘I think of local newspaper as the last refuge of unfiltered America, a running
documentary of the warts and triumphs of real people, unfettered by the spin
and bias and opaque polish of today’s homogenized journalism. It’s the difference
between homemade bread and Pop-Tarts.’-
— Jock Lauterer

If Squirrel Species Can Coexist, Why Can’t Various News Media?

Let’s turn to the topic at hand, mass media meets community and niche media. I’d like to start by talking about squirrels. . I spent the last couple of months in Missoula, Montana, hanging out with folks who are scientists and ecologists. While I was there, I learned the story of the red squirrels and the gray squirrels in Missoula. You see, years ago red squirrels lived on only one side of the Clark Fork River, which bisects that town. And the gray squirrels lived on the other side. One day engineers come to town, and engineers build bridges. And the squirrels could more easily cross from one side to the other.

Now, in an ecological sense, you would think. . . that one subspecies of squirrel would out-compete the other. Over the long term, one kind of squirrel would disappear, and the other would survive. And triumph.

But that has not happened. And that’s because of something called “the principle of competitive exclusion.” That principle is part of what scientists call “the theory of niche.” What that tells us is that the strongest organisms, the strongest species, are those that avoid head-to-head competition. They are those who survive by developing their own unique specifications and specializations.

In the case of the squirrels, they didn’t compete for the same territory once they started living on the same side of the river. They nest in different parts of a tree, they eat different kinds of food.

So. I’m taking the squirrel story and bringing it back to the world of media. Can. . . news media organizations, staffed by homo sapiens, learn something from the principle of competitive exclusion? Is this what niche products and community journalism are all about? I really want to know whether journalists can learn anything from ecology.

Jock Lauterer, Founder, Carolina Community Media Project, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Staying ‘relentlessly local’ is the key

The first thing that a community journalist knows is, it’s all about access. I believe there’s a direct correlation between access and trust. Here’s a story. . . people want to know what community journalism is. . . . I’ve got a story told by the newly elected governor of the state of North Carolina, Mike Easely, who . . . decided to go home to his hometown of Southport. . . home of the state’s best weekly newspaper, the Southport Pilot.. . . [the governor said] “As I was reading this newspaper, I was recognizing all these names and faces of people I knew, all the weddings, the school news, the sports, even the obits, so by the time I got to the other side of the harbor. . . [he asked the captain of the ferry boat he was on if he could keep the paper] and this is what the captain told the newly elected governor of North Carolina: “No, I’m not done with it.”

This is a three-day-old weekly newspaper, y’all. Another little story. . . some of you may be familiar with Baxter Black, the cowboy poet who writes a wonderful column. He wrote a column headlined “Why I Love my Hometown Newspaper.” [the San Pedro, Arizona Sun-News, a weekly.] Here’s the quote: “Small town newspapers often thrive because CNN or the New York Times are not going to scoop them for coverage of headlines like ‘VFW Fish Fry’ or ‘Bridge Construction Delay’ or ‘Boys and Girls Playing Basketball Receive Scholarship’ or graduating or getting married. Or going off to war.

I think of local newspapers as the last refuge of unfiltered America, a running documentary of the warts and triumphs of real people, unfettered by the spin and bias and opaque polish of today’s homogenized journalism. It’s the difference between homemade bread and Pop-Tarts.

What is it that these newspapers know that, perhaps, other newspapers may not know? Some of you may have read, or are reading, The Tipping Point? A darn good book in which the author talks about “stickiness” and products or institutions having “stickiness”—it simply means they are memorable and vital to you. I think community newspapers have that.

As long ago as 1984, CBS legend Charles Kuralt was giving the commencement address at my university [UNC at Chapel Hill]. . . I heard him with my own ears say, “Salvation of the American media would be that the media become relentlessly local.” This is in 1984. Kuralt called for us. . . to become relentlessly local. . .

So yes, Peggy, there is an entire niche of community newspapers, 97 percent of all American newspapers have circulations of 50,000 or under. And ASNE calls those “small newspapers.” I call them community newspapers because their emphasis is local, local, local.

That’s what it’s all about, folks. And so as we look at our numbers and we look at our attitudes that we’re hearing being talked about today, I hope that we can all reflect on the importance of the local media. And remember that, of all those papers out there, a huge percentage of those 9,000 newspapers—7,000 plus—are weeklies. That is a factor we need to talk more about, it’s a huge growth area.

Who won the Pulitzer this year for investigative reporting? An urban alternative weekly. Right there in Portland, Oregon.

Accountability is Most Keen at the Local Level

How many of you have worked at a community newspaper? . . . If I write anything that doesn’t ring true with the community, I’m going to get ambushed over the broccoli in the Food Lion. Don’t you know what I mean? I don’t think Jayson Blair would have lasted one week at a community newspaper. . he would have been outed! So the credibility and the trust, the sort of relationship, really has everything to do with accountability and access, because people know they can walk right in, and they do. Those of you who have worked at small newspapers know this is an absolute factor and we must keep our doors open. It’s not just putting our email at the end of the story, which is a great idea, by the way. You’ve got to be out there, and get out of the newsroom. It’s a critical dynamic.

Leonard Witt: I’ve noticed, up in Carroll County, New Hampshire, now, there’s a listserv that’s almost doing what the paper used to do before. People get on it, they talk to each other, it’s really independent of the newspaper, it’s lively. . . I’m far away from there now, but I still own property there, and from a distance I can really keep up with what’s going on better than I can with a paper. . . .I think many of those papers are not very good. Some of them don’t cover the town very well, and they’re very vulnerable.

Jan Larsen, University of Wisconsin: We have a locally owned paper, and I’ve worked for both locally owned papers and chains, and I think that the problem in our area with some of those smaller papers is that they are so worried about advertising that they don’t want to tick anyone off. And I’ve seen some recent campaigns to print “happy news” and only “good news” in order to try to attract readers, but the feedback that I’ve been getting from the community has been disappointment that they are underestimating the intelligence of their audience.

So I think that even local papers have some work to do with their credibility in that regard.

Jock Lauterer: For every crummy newspaper that you mention—there are plenty of them—there are others that are heroic, that are led by—and this is critical—great leaders. Great newspapers are the result of great people.

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