Public service journalism: What we can’t give up

pageWith shrinking staffs and growing demands, reporters and editors for years have been asking, “What can we give up?”

It’s a fair question (and one I’ll get to), but we learn far more when we  ask: What can we not give up?

That answer is simple: Public service journalism.

Despite smaller staffs, more frequent deadlines and diminishing resources, newspapers must maintain a focus on public service journalism.

Last week, The Detroit News published a two-part project that showed that half of Detroit property owners didn’t pay their taxes last year. For a city on its fiscal knees, the importance was clear: The city would have more money in its coffers if it could collect what it is owed.

The stories, written by reporters Christine MacDonald and Mike Wilkinson and editor Joel Kurth, were developed over four months.

That’s a big investment, but absolutely worthwhile.

The mainbar alone attracted more than 97,000 page views within a week. Despite its intensely local interest, the package was linked to from national sites (such as drudgereport.com) and international sites (such as wykop.pl) as far away as Poland.

For newspapers, such successes bring marketing value as well as community service value.

But those investments are not easy. Christine explains much of the reporting process in this excellent post by the Columbia Journalism Review.

“These days, everyone is asked to do more with less,” Christine told cjr.org. “But the need for strong, public service investigative reporting has never been greater. During the project, I continued beat coverage of several areas, including corruption at Wayne County and the Detroit Public Library system.”

The Detroit News has seen its fair share of staff cuts. In a highly competitive market, the number of reporters has declined. Within the past three years, as the belts tightened further, The News instituted a separate investigative team of two reporters and an editor.

It’s one good way, but not the only way, to maintain a focus on public service journalism.

When I was at the much smaller Times Herald in Port Huron, Mich., we had 34 newsroom staffers; maybe 12 of them were news reporters. Yet editors like Mike Connell, Patrick Rice and Denise Richter protected public service journalism and got outstanding and award-winning work from reporters such as Deanna Weniger, Tony Manolatos and Paul Egan, just to name three.

In today’s media landscape, newspapers may only remain relevant if they’re hyper-competitive on breaking news, break their own news in the form of public service enterprise or do a credible job of both.

One complication is that most newspapers long ago ceded low-grade breaking news to television and radio because they couldn’t compete in timeliness. By the time a story got into print, electronic media already had asked and answered the relevant questions.

Newspapers turned instead to stories of more lasting significance.

When the internet made breaking news relevant again, newspapers found themselves conflicted. Start aggressively covering the breaking news-of-the-moment or focus only on bigger-picture enterprise pieces?

The answer, of course, is that newsrooms have to do both. Readers are moving to digital delivery, and newspapers have to compete.

In striving to do both, the question came louder: “What can we give up?”

And the answer is: A lot.

The question has to be refocused away from what beats or geographic areas we stop covering. It must be framed instead in terms of how we raise the standards for what we cover.

Some places where many newsrooms could raise the bar:

  1. Court coverage. People care most about the crime, then whether the cops got the bad guy and finally whether justice was done. Every crime does not need to be followed through each hearing to a verdict.
  2. Process coverage. We need to know how laws get made, but we don’t have to cover many of the intermediate steps along the way.
  3. Protests. Some are newsworthy. Some are not. Too many attract news coverage.
  4. Enterprise stories that don’t break news. We spend lots of time and energy pulling together known facts and on a topic and casting them as news. Done quickly and selectively, explainers have merit. Done repeatedly and belatedly, these thumb suckers are really time suckers.
  5. Events. We feel a civic responsibility to attend and cover the big ones. Others we staff  because it’s the easiest story with photograph that we can find that day, especially on weekends. We must resist.
  6. More briefs, fewer stories. In many of the cases above, we still want to check on the courts, meetings, lawmakers, protests and events. But where there’s no big news, turn phone calls into briefs online and in print.

The best advice? Read your newspaper and pick the handful of stories that you could’ve done without that day.

And instead of looking at the top performers on your website, spend some time reviewing the worst performers.

After a few days, you’ll start to see patterns. That’s what you want to give up.

Pull back from those stories and start investing more in what you know attracts readers — public service journalism they can’t find anywhere else.

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