You want to stay relevant? Be accessible
A newspaper's credibility is directly linked to its ability to identify, collect and report the relevant community news. Then why do so many newspapers make it so difficult for readers to connect with reporters?
Let me explain. I'm passionate in my belief that community newspapers still can claim a stronghold in today's fractured media landscape – if they stick to the basics. That means owning the franchise for aggressive reporting of local news. That will occur only if readers have a direct pipeline to editors and reporters.
Yes, I understand the important and necessary role of social media both in collecting and reporting the news – in connecting with readers. Social media is integral in my day job directing communications and media relations for a statewide business advocacy organization.
But nothing replaces direct, one-on-one conversation. It's truly amazing the barriers that so many newspapers place between themselves and their readers – their news sources.
A few tips from someone who has sat on both sides of the editor's desk:
- Post your contact information – prominently – on the home page of your website. Include phone numbers as well as e-mail addresses.
- Provide the direct phone numbers and individual e-mail addresses for staff, if available. Readers have no assurance that a general voice mail or e-mail boxes are regularly monitored and messages forwarded to appropriate staff.
- Keep contact information current. If you have voice mail, change your recording daily so readers know whether you are in the office and whether you are monitoring messages. Ditto for e-mail; use your "out of office" message when applicable.
- Avoid using automated phone answering services during regular business hours. If you must, callers still should have an opportunity to connect to a "live voice."
- Be responsive to customers. Be prompt in returning phone or e-mail inquiries.
I recently tried to submit a news item about a former resident to his hometown newspaper – the type of "people" items that remain the lifeblood of community newspapers. I searched the newspaper's website for at least 10 minutes for a list of reporters and contact information. I finally called the 800 number; the recording only gave me options to reach someone in the circulation department. I turned to Google, matching the newspaper's name with "e-mail addresses." It didn't surprise me, but it should concern the newspaper, when the search produced a website with the declaration that this newspaper "does not offer e-mail support." Among the reasons: "few readers have wanted it." Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the newspaper's community connections.
I also vividly recall an instance years ago when telephones were the primary – the only – way to communicate. I called a fellow editor to ask a question. The receptionist politely responded that he did not accept any phone calls until after noon – not just that day, but any day – because he was on deadline in the morning. I always wondered: What if I had been a reader calling in with a breaking news tip?
I appreciate the frenzied pace of newspapers, no matter your department. Punching your DND button on the phone or deferring to e-mail communication certainly minimizes your interruptions. Be careful though; it can backfire.
Remember, those interruptions can translate into opportunities – to resolve a delivery issue, to accept an ad, to explore a potential news story. Those are the connections that keep you relevant to your communities.
Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of "Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage," "Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage" and "Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers." He can be reached at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.