Good, bad, we need to cover it all
Over the years I have heard complaints from two sides of our readership.
Some people want us to be more positive about the community. They say things like "why do you put in the jail bookings" or "how could you write that about a good person" when we run not so flattering stories about events or people.
On the other hand we often get criticized because others think we don't try to dig out every piece of supposed dirt we can on everything that happens. They say things like "you guys don't report what is really going on" or "the upstate media had a story on this? Why don't you."
Managing the editorial content of a small, community based paper is not the easiest job in the world. You must take in a lot, listen to a lot of people, and make decisions about what will be printed. While I and John Surfustini co-editor the paper, we need to be sure of a number of things when we do stories, whether they be light hearted feature pieces or a hard crime stories that will affect a lot of peoples lives.
It's true that much of what goes into our paper is characterized as good news. Scout projects, parade coverage, benefit check passings and photo pages on fun events are all part of our community. Regularly, however, we do publish stories and items that one can see as negative. Storys about accidents, crime, death and sometimes bad things that happen with good people involved are also part of the mix.
I have had people say to me "We can do without all that negativity. We get enough of that on the evening news."
But the fact is that people want to read about those things. No maybe you, as an individual, does not want to read about a neighbor you like getting arrested, but others in the community do. I know that those that would like to only see a "good news" paper in their community don't believe that, but I have more proof than ever of the fact people want to know about the bad things that happen.
Newspapers used to use the sales of their papers to judge what stories were of interest to the community. Certainly sales do go up when a major tragedy occurs; I can see it in the numbers as they come in. But that doesn't tell us anything for sure. What does confirm our thoughts, however, in this electronic age, is as stories are posted on our web site (whether from the regular issue or as breaking news) we can see the rise in readership immediatelly because our analytics allow us to do that. We know from the past six weeks of readership at any one time what the most read stories are. Somes stories are posted on the web and make a steady incline in the number of readers. Other stories get a few readers and stop accumulating numbers after a couple of days. Some stories, however, take off like a rocket. And for those that say negative stories should be left out of the newspaper, I say look at the statisitics.
People that say they don't want to see crime, death, accidents, sex and investigations in our paper would be surprised to know that most people, if we go by the numbers, would disagree with them. Last August we had a couple of incidents involving local people in which these kinds of things took place. The page views on our website, which are normally very high for a paper our size anyway, zipped to almost 600,000 for the month. We can watch those kinds of individual stories climb, especially when we post breaking news of an event. They zip right up the ladder of readership, passing most of the "good" stories we have put out in the prior weeks.
Presently, as I write this nine of the 10 top spots in our analysis of web readership have in their headlines something about an accident, high speed chases, attempted homocide, arson and the resignation of government employee over some charges filed against him. The next 10 spots are not much different. It's not until we get to the story that is ranked 22nd on the list do we get to a positive human interest story.
Some may say web readership is different from the paper. Well maybe a little, but informal polls we have conducted show that people will often look at the web for breaking news and then follow it up by looking at the same story in the paper when the next edition comes out.
Over the years a newspaper gains a number of detractors. Some of that is because of the style of the paper, maybe a dislike of some of the people that work there or they just don't trust the paper for one reason or another. Most who dislike a paper usually have some affiliation with a story they didn't want to see published.
One of the problems small papers in particular have is keeping advertising and editorial separate. One small paper in central Utah ran into this problem in a big way a few years ago. The wife of the owner of the biggest store in town (and the papers best advertiser) pulled his advertising after his wife was arrested for a DUI and the paper ran it in their jail bookings. Losing that revenue almost put that paper on the edge of having to get rid of a couple of employees to make costs fit the revenues. They did survive it, and after about five years the ads from that source did come back, but that kind of thing hurts. Yet the paper could not not report her arrest in fairness to everyone else who had ever appeared in the jail bookings.
We actually do have a couple of businesses in the area who do not advertise with us over something with similar circumstances. In one case the incident that set off a dislike of the paper took place almost 40 years ago, before anyone who now works here as an employee was even affiliated with the paper. Memories can be long when it comes to things people don't like.
It's a tough row to hoe sometimes, balancing community sensitivities with peoples right to know and at times our bottom line. Yet if a newspaper caves into the threat of someone pulling advertising to make sure a story doesn't appear, the public will lose its trust in that publication. For us that is very important; we strive to be the trusted news source in the area.
Regardless of circumstances we feel an informed and engaged citizenry is critical to the health and well being of a community. And that's why it's so important that we write stories about everything, even if it makes some people in the area uncomfortable.