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Systemic failure of local newspapers?

The "local newspaper system" needs to be further developed and anchored more firmly in the lives of readers and users.

Not long ago Südkurier editor-in-chief Stefan Lutz wrote a testimonial on his site making the case for people to subscribe. His argument: more than 120 editors work for the readers of Südkurier every day. (The campaign has disappeared from the website, so I don’t have the exact number, but it was in the low three-digit range).

This campaign made me think about the prospects of traditional local newspapers. Was the situation of Südkurier typical for local journalism as practiced by many daily newspapers? Also, how effective were such campaigns, reaching out to audiences?

As a long-standing editor-in-chief and editorial director, I can of course completely understand taking pride in your journalistic organisation. What is less clear is how a reader who is supposed to become a subscriber would interpret the statement. After all, they cannot judge if the number of editors is a little or a lot for a newsroom the size of Südkurier. They have no reference points for the number of local editions or circulation size.

Since the reader does not know how many editors neighbouring dailies Schwäbische Zeitung or Badische Zeitung employ (there was no such information in the campaign), they cannot even compare whether Südkurier employs more or fewer editors. At most, they can try to compare the quality of the content.

My conclusion: For the potential subscriber, this number – which is meant to say how much effort you are putting in – actually says nothing. The fact that a newspaper employs a number of editors is also not that unusual.

Audiences could even respond that they would rather have eighty fully committed and target group-oriented editors than twice as many average or unmotivated editors. Of course, I don’t want to say anything against the great colleagues at Südkurier. On the contrary.

Rather, my point is about the perspective this testimonial takes. I doubt this information can be interpreted by the potential subscriber in the way the sender wants (“We are a good local medium” or even “We are better than others because we put more resources into editorial work”). And this despite the fact the campaign was probably developed together with communication experts.

My conclusion is that it represents the internal view of the media company’s editorial department. Similar cases can be found in other daily newspapers, and I fear this approach is a major reason for the local news crisis. Now, I don’t know all daily newspapers in Germany, not even the majority. But among those I know, I have seen similar phenomena time and again.

It comes down to something that can be called self-referentiality. What do I mean by that? Daily newspapers, their editorial and publishing departments, are a system that processes news and advertising formats. This system has – in the sense of the Bielefeld sociologist Niklas Luhmann – its own, self-imposed rules and ways of working.

But these rules and ways of working do not necessarily have anything to do with the reader. The reader, or rather the inhabitant, lives in a different system. Namely, in the system that could be titled “citizen of a municipality”. And both systems are working differently. Here are a few examples that can explain this in more detail.

Example 1: Useful value

Here’s an example from the field of utility journalism (and another recent, personal experience of mine). Let’s say I want to know where I can park at one of Franconia’s biggest public festivals, the “Bergkirchweih” in Erlangen (1.3 million visitors a year), and how much it costs. In short, a typical question for someone who wants to visit the Bergkirchweih.

I can’t find any information on the website of the local newspaper, the Erlanger Nachrichten. I can, however, find it on the websites of Parkopedia and the city administration.

If I were to ask a local editor about it, they would probably say they have written about it, as they do every year, and that the answer is in any of the 10+ articles published in 2018 or 2019 about the Bergkirchweih. Now the question: does the parking-seeker want to sift through a bunch of articles only to find the information on line 85 of the third piece? You know the answer.

This example can be extended to other areas, regions, topics and typical needs. From my point of view it is a systemic problem. Why? Because the local newspaper editorial system can only process news. Everything that is not news cannot be perceived or processed editorially.

This explains why very few local newspapers have created systematic wiki-like landing pages with all relevant information (such as opening times, costs, parking, highlights, etc.) about the most important events, sights, road closures and detours, dates in the region.

No news, no publication! In this way, the local newspaper system only answers reader questions for which the answer can be presented as news. For a hammer, every problem is a nail…

Example 2: Focus groups and reader surveys

Some publishers regularly use focus groups and surveys to ask their users questions (and to learn about those who should become users). Typically, they ask how the user finds the product or products.

Is the issue or website good? Are they worth the money? Too expensive, too cheap? Are the texts too long or too short? But those are questions in which media managers are interested, but usually not the readers.

Readers, as a part of the system “citizen of a municipality”, have completely different issues. For example, whether the kindergarten will be built, whether the 30 km/h speed limit will be introduced… Whether the diversions will still be in place when they have to go to work on Monday morning, or where they can park at the Bergkirchweih.

Too many surveys only revolve around the product – too few around the reader.

Example 3: Online reporting

I recently received the daily online report that is issued to freelance writers by a daily newspaper. It consisted only of click figures, i.e. reach, and digital subscription conversion figures.

The media-time of individual articles (“the” feeder for digital subscriptions), which articles were read to the end, which contributions were picked up and posted by people on Facebook or Twitter (and by whom), which contributions on social media triggered entire debates and so on – all that was missing.

The metrics those freelancers receive prime them for creating clickbait. That is, it is not about creating relevance, triggering debates, becoming a topic, but only about the quick click. This perhaps explains why car accidents and house break-ins have had such a strange career on the websites of local newspapers. They are also cheap to produce.

Example 4: Online scoring

I also wondered about the scoring systems I know of from two daily newspapers. They go in a similar direction. What is measured and evaluated is what generates short-term reach. Content that starts rather below average in the short-term and does not improve after three or four days is often removed from the website. On the other hand, I know quite a few websites that make more than half of their reach with content that has been on the website for more than a year.

This is because this content is relevant, useful and always kept up-to-date. They achieve little daily reach, sometimes only 50 or 100 clicks – but they do so for months and years.

This is an example of the famous “long tail” that former Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson talked about. If the scoring of these daily newspapers were to be applied, then such content would either not be produced at all or would quickly disappear from the website.

For some websites, this would mean half their reach would be cut off in one fell swoop (or not even exist in the first place). In addition, this scoring logic systematically prevents the development of usefulness, relevance and search engine trust in important subject areas.

Example 5: Small dedicated blogs and neighbourhood websites

You may have one of those neighbours who runs a dedicated blog critical of the community. Or you might follow the leisure gourmet who critically but fairly discusses the gastronomy of your city on his small website. The history teacher who runs a blog on local history…

Such people can be very inventive, not infrequently even presenting a sort of challenge to professional local editors. Their publications are not infrequently the talk of the town.

There are cases of local newspapers who have forbidden their editors to report on them. The reason: supposed competition.

Yet local papers would have a great opportunity to become comprehensive portals of their region: The local portal presents everything that is relevant to the reader, whether analogue or “virtual”, and tries to systematically provide answers to all the questions of the citizens.

Example 6: Editorial diversity

This point also goes back to a debate that is currently being intensively discussed in the USA. It is not only about the share of female authors and editors, but also about the share of representatives of socially marginalized groups.

Although the social turbulence in the USA is greater than in Germany, this aspect is also important for us, especially when it comes to making a local media offer interesting or relevant not only for white, mostly heterosexual middle-class men.

Added to that: In many German editorial offices we also often find editors over 50 and under 20, the “middle” is missing. This does not exactly help to capture as many perspectives as possible.

This point would certainly be worth a separate article. Nevertheless, here are a few sentences: Many local newspapers have “chopped up” their editorial formats and at the same time banned the longer pieces from the editions (in the mistaken assumption that their readers only want to read small morsels) that the journalists often simply lack the space to publish in-depth or more profound articles in the print editions.

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Example 7: Formats

But the readers who still read newspapers want background information. The newspaper Die Zeit is a good example: longer pieces tend to be read there. Now one might object that not every daily newspaper reader is an intellectual Zeit reader. But I would counter that anyone who still reads a local paper today is likely to be of the more intellectual variety.

Often, colleagues do not have enough space to explain the background of a city council meeting, for example. So you get a superficial summary. But many municipalities now publish the minutes of their public meetings on their websites. So why read a meagre summary in the newspaper when you can find a more detailed version on the town hall’s homepage?

Of course, it would also be exciting to comment on the minutes published ex officio and fill in the gaps and provide background information. But unfortunately, I haven’t seen that yet (though it would be a good idea). If you know of a local newspaper that does something like that, please drop me a mail.

Here, too, the system fails on its own. Which brings me to the following admittedly pointed and bold statement: A media-wise well-made local newspaper or a media-wise well-made local digital offer does not necessarily have to be a good newspaper or a good website for its local users.

Because – as described at the beginning – these systemic blind spots have fatal consequences, especially in a segment that is characterized by digital formats and new digital competition: Unfortunately, they lead to areas that could produce relevance AND reach, media-time *and* conversion, being neglected almost as a matter of principle.

I don’t want to say anything against well-made local journalism. On the contrary. Well-made local journalism is part of the solution to the crisis of local newspapers. But local newspapers should think more about how they need to further develop the “local newspaper system”, i.e. the sum of convictions, basic assumptions, values, rules, procedures, processes, concepts, channels and formats, so that the local newspaper or its local online offering can once again find stronger roots in the lives of readers and users. If they only look at themselves, then I’m afraid it can’t work.

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Olaf Deininger is a Business journalist and digital expert with many years of experience in media leadership positions, among others as editor-in-chief at Holzmann Medien in Munich, at the Hamburg publishing house Jahreszeiten Verlag and at Deutscher Sparkassenverlag in Stuttgart. He worked as Head of Development at Deutscher Landwirtschaftsverlag and as Creative Director/Chief Development Officer at the internet agency PopNet (Hamburg). Olaf Deininger published studies, market overviews and product comparisons on business software and IT solutions.

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