Keeping the lines of communication open

Posted

Reprinted from The Sumter Item

Think of this as a manifesto for the future involving your local community newspaper.

Not all communities have dependable, trusted local media these days, and that's a dangerous problem across the country.

Too many people and communities are isolated, creating what are called "news deserts."

Sumter is fortunate in that regard, and we're proud to be part of an institution that has served this area since 1894.

The larger question – given the disruption of media and just about everything else in the world – is how does a local newspaper continue to serve the public, protect democracy, share history, promote advertisers and keep communities together amidst such information overload?

That's a question for us as community journalists, but it's also a question for you, a member of a community with schools, health care services, churches, sports, charitable organizations, businesses of all sorts and elected officials who serve you. As a reader, business owner/operator, elected official or private citizen – a member of a community – what do you want from a local institution such as ours? Where should our resources be focused, or refocused?

I'm not asking these questions rhetorically, because we want to hear from you. I'm even going to incentivize people by offering cash rewards for the best ideas that are implemented over the coming months.

We'll call it the "Summer 2017 Sumter Item March to the Future." We've already set up the "War Strategy Room" at 36 West Liberty St., and I'm happy to schedule a visit with anyone who'd like to come by and discuss issues that need discussing.

As an example of what we're already doing within our own organization, here are some key concepts straight out of other newsrooms across the nation:

Be the organization of interest in the community.

Swap "beats" for "obsessions."

Chase "themes" and "ideas."

Focus on people. Everyone has a story.

Become "relentlessly interesting" with local coverage.

Think like a foreign correspondent seeing things for the first time.

Work hard at preserving the foundation of what news and local newspapering have meant since the beginning.

How much time are we spending in city or county council meetings compared to doing connect-the-dots stories?

Are we pursuing the right stories for our readers?

Are there opportunities to network with other news outlets, independent journalists or public service organizations to better serve the whole community?

What do future versions of the website need to accomplish for readers, who are increasingly consuming information on mobile devices?

How do we use our high local website traffic to better serve advertisers in our community, versus cluttering the site with junk ads that have no local relevance? (We've purposely avoided that and will continue to do so.)

What's the best way to package print, online and direct email contact for advertisers and organizations that will give them the best results? What's the price point on such print/digital combination packages? Are we explaining this powerful consumer reach to customers in an effective way?

Are we providing effective channels for reader feedback? Are we listening?

One final note to consider from recent a Columbia Journalism Review article by Michael Rosenwald. He writes, "Local readers, particularly those who read in both formats, are the most engaged users of newspaper print editions and websites – staying longer, consuming more stories, viewing more ads and, in the case of national outlets, subscribing at higher rates."

The Google analytics on our website – www.theitem.com – confirms that analysis.

We look forward to hearing from you, and we're easy to contact via email or phone.

Graham Osteen is editor-at-large of The Sumter Item. He can be reached at graham@theitem.com. Follow him on Twitter @GrahamOsteen, or visit www.grahamosteen.com.

Osteen, Sumter

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