What’s wrong with local media?


What are the papers saying?“It’s about trust. Our relationship with our readers is built on transparency, honesty and integrity.” So opens the front-page piece in this weekend’s Connection, titled in all-caps, “Local News Needs Support ‘Now More Than Ever'”. It echoes the theme of”now more than ever” written for National Newspaper Week, Oct. 1-7. And some of it is eerily similar to what Bob Cox wrote about journalism on Oct. 2. Imitation is the sincerest form, I suppose.

Apparently the Connection only climbed on board six weeks later. But I suppose it’s better late than… well, no it’s not. At least during National Newspaper Week they could have justified publishing some of this gooey dreck.

The self-aggrandizing theme – begging for local support, whingeing that ad revenue is declining while boasting how great the paper and its staff are – is present on five pages in a publication that has limited editorial content even at its best. Trust us, we’re journalists, the copy screams. We’re pros. And in case you missed it once, they say it again and again and again.

The claim about declining advertising might be hard for readers to swallow, what with the paper fat with (by my count) fifteen thick store flyers in the latest issue. And it’s not like the paper lacks display ads – see my analysis below.

Let me start by saying that I worked as both reporter and editor for the local papers. I was appalled that such self-serving content (and so much of it!) was not just on the front page, but embedded throughout the paper. Is it in the best community interest to show a photograph of the reporters on the front page instead of a community event or group? That speaks volumes to me about the paper’s focus: itself before the community. This sort of content should have come as a special section, or displayed after the news.

The Connection was an independent paper back in 1990 when I first moved here, but was bought by Metroland – owned by TorStar – in 1992 or 93 (I worked there briefly as the editor/reporter/layout person before being hired by the Enterprise Bulletin). It has always been a one-person operation – the single reporter covering politics, police, events, sports and everything else – overseen by a regional editor, with contributed content and columns.

Nowadays they have to handle social media and online filing, too. Overworked, I admit, albeit a union job better paid than I ever was in newspapers. But inadequate staffing and poor resource use is a management failure.

Metroland has always been about advertising. It’s the free wrapper around the flyers (of Metroland’s 106 papers with 5.27 million circulation, only 15,300 are paid). That’s called a “community” paper although how much real community content is available depends on the publication.

Let’s take a closer look at this week’s paper and analyze the contents so we can see just how committed to local news and coverage the paper is. (I apologize in advance for any mistakes – there are some bits like the front page logo and some classified columns that may be estimates).

The paper has 44 pages, divided into six 11.5-inch columns (excuse me for being so imperial in my measurements). That’s 69 column-inches per page for a total of 3,036 column inches from front to back.

Of that space, 599 column inches are dedicated to editorial content of every sort, including photos, sports, community, events, news, columns and contributed material. That’s a ratio of about 19.7% editorial to advertising. Note there is an 11.5-inch masthead, too, making the total of non-ad space somewhat higher at 610.5 column inches. Even with that masthead included, the ratio is just 20% editorial to 80% advertising.

But let’s take a closer look at what’s in those 599 inches (all figures include photos, pull-quotes and headlines) in order of volume:

  • Community news (personalities, church, lawyers, babies, pets, Santa Claus parade): 196.5 inches (p.3, 14, 25, 28, 29, 31, 33 and 34)
  • Self-serving, self-promoting articles and opinion pieces about how great the Connection and Metroland are: 182 column inches (p. 1, 4, 6, 8 and 24).
  • Events: one full page, 69 inches (p. 30).
  • News: 61.5 inches (p.10, 16, 21 and 26). Note that the first item of actual news – and arguably the most important piece in the entire paper (the town being sued at the Ontario Supreme Court over a flaw in its clandestine airport deal although the reporter never asked who in town hall was responsible for the disputed lease… ) doesn’t even appear until page 10. Stories on p. 16 and 26 are about Clearview Township, not Collingwood. Total Collingwood news: a mere 22 inches. And the 5.5 inch piece on p. 21 is from a police report. 
  • Opinion (not including the self-serving two-column editorial: that’s counted above): 34.5 inches (16.5 for the cartoon, 18 for mostly irrelevant comments copied from social media – no letters or op-ed pieces).
  • Contributed columns: 33 inches (p. 23 and 27)
  • Other contributed content: 22.5 inches (p. 21 and 22)

Let’s look at the percentages each category above represents, first of the total paper (3,036 column inches), then of the total editorial space (599 inches) rounded up to one digit:

  • Community: 6.5%/32.8%
  • Self-serving content and opinion: 6%/30.4%
  • Events: 2.3%/11.5%
  • News: 2%/10.3% (but the two Collingwood news items – police and airport stories – make up only 0.7%/3.7%)
  • Opinion: 1.1%/5.8% (however, measuring comments only, and not including the cartoon, the numbers are much lower: 0.6%/3%)
  • Columns: 1.1%/5.8%
  • Contributed other: 0.7%/3.8%

Of the total 599 inches, the Connection’s reporter filled 154.5 inches (160 if you include the re-typed police report). Another 39.5 inches were filled by the Clearview reporter. The local reporter generated roughly only a quarter of the editorial content, of which only one item was an actual news story, and that was buried on page 10.

The only reader-generated input is eleven comments, mostly one-liners, redundantly taken from Twitter and Facebook, themselves based on comments made about stories posted on the chain’s regional social media accounts. Only two of the comments have to do with Collingwood; three are about Barrie, two about Innisfil issues. How do these engage local readers?

Of the advertising space, the Town of Collingwood bought 207 column inches (three full colour pages), but the Connection’s own ads are even longer: 290 column inches or about 12% of the total ad space. Added to the self-serving content (182 inches), that totals 472 column inches of space used to promote or justify the Connection and its staff in some manner. Keep in mind that the total amount of space allocated to Collingwood news is a mere 22 inches in two items – about 4.7% of the space used for the Connection’s own promotional material.

Twenty two of this issue’s 44 pages are fully covered with ads (1,518 column inches or almost two-thirds of the total ad space), and there is no editorial content in the last ten pages whatsoever. The first actual news item doesn’t appear until page ten, and the next one doesn’t appear until page 16. There are three lengthy, self-serving pieces before the actual news.

All this advertising may help keep the paper in the black, but what does it do for readers? Or for advertisers who worry their ads get lost in the sheer volume? Here’s a quote from a 2008 article that ran in Editor and Publisher magazine (in my days in the paper, E&P was read widely by not just editors but by reporters too, although I have no idea if local editors or reporters read it or anything else today…):

Advertisers, meanwhile, do monitor the level of content. “The ad-to-edit ratio is very important to advertisers,” says Deborah Armstrong, senior vice president/sales and marketing for Mediaspace Solutions, a company that places newspaper advertising. “The point of equilibrium is different for every advertiser.” She notes that whatever that ratio happens to be, advertisers actually prefer it to favor content.
Here’s why: “Newspapers are the must trusted news medium. That sense of trust helps your ad when readers see it,” she says.
When too many ads clutter up a space, advertisers get leery.

It’s been a couple of decades since I worked in newspapers, but I seem to recall that a 60-40 ad ratio to editorial was considered way too ad-heavy back then. My how times have changed. In US newspapers, ad-editorial ratios have remained pretty much around 50% or slightly less since 2000. That may be a bit unrealistic given the inroads of digital media into the print market, but 80/20 seems top-heavy in ads by any standard.

And it’s not like the paper has any print competition. After the deal between Postmedia and TorStar last November to swap and close community newspapers across Canada (closing 34 community papers in Ontario alone), the Connection’s only local print competitor – the Enterprise-Bulletin – was shut down. So the town and many other advertisers had no other place to go.

Local journalism might be a bit more respected if the company actually focused on local news and issues, and not so much on self-promotion and whingeing. Local news consumes a mere tenth of the editorial content this week and more than half of that is from Clearview. How are readers expected to be informed or engaged in our community with such a paucity of news? How does that engender trust in readers that they are getting a fulsome picture of what is happening locally?

And when is the last time you recall the Connection writing a story exposing the many in camera meetings this council has held? Or writing an editorial calling for council to consult the public and conduct its business in an open, accountable manner? Doing some in-depth investigative reporting? Right: you haven’t. They’ve steered clear of anything that even sniffs of controversy or challenge to the powers that be – afraid, I suspect, they might upset their lucrative deal with the town for advertising space if they report effectively on council.

Maybe they’re worried now that an online-only newcomer has appeared to upstage the print media with more coverage, more content, more insight and more depth in its writing. If I were an advertiser, I’d be looking at the media people are most likely to read and comment on, not the one with the fattest flyer content. Maybe the complacency the Connection and associated staff felt with the closure of the Enterprise-Bulletin is biting them on their collective asses so they felt compelled to bitch and moan in public.

Trust, like respect, has to be earned. Words alone don’t win them. Journalists are expected to be public watchdogs looking out for the community’s interests, not avoiding confrontation or contention. When the Connection and its sister papers start behaving like newspapers and not just ad wrappers, they will start earning our trust and respect. 


PS. In the third edition of their book, The Elements of Journalism, authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel identify ten essential principles and practices of good journalism. These are:

  1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth
  2. Its first loyalty is to citizens
  3. Its essence is a discipline of verification.
  4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
  5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
  6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
  7. It must strive to keep the significant interesting and relevant.
  8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.
  9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.
  10. Citizens, too, have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news.

Neither author suggests that these rules don’t apply to local media, or that you can practice a few but not all of them. I cannot know if any local reporter or editor has bothered to read this book but I have my doubts.

As a final note, the first thing journalists are taught are the “five Ws” – who, what, where, when and why. They should be sure to fill in each one in EVERY story And then they’re taught to add “how.” Or as Wikipedia tells us the questions are:

Who was involved?
What happened?
Where did it take place?
When did it take place?
Why did that happen?
Some authors add a sixth question, “how”, to the list.

Without these being asked and answered, the reader only gets an incomplete and sometimes biased part of the story. Just read the stories in the paper over the next few weeks – the few news pieces in particular – and ask yourself if each question was answered to your satisfaction. If they have, then you have respectable journalism. If you still have questions after reading – then there is still some way to go to earn your trust as a reader.

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