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26 Jun. 2019 | Comments (0)

Warren Buffet, in an interview with Yahoo Finance, called the newspaper industry “toast.” And while he’s probably right, he’s wrong about what made newspapers effective in the first place.

“The things that are essentially news is what you don’t know that you want to know,” Buffett said. “You know what happened in national sports the moment it happened, and you can go watch a video of it and so on. You can go to ESPN and see what’s going on. You know what’s happening in politics. You know what’s happening in the stock market.” Yahoo Finance added, “What you didn’t know was what was going to appear in the ads.”

The idea that ads were what made newspapers valuable is partly accurate. What made them truly useful, though, was the local news coverage. While you can find out what’s going on in Venezuela by visiting major news sites, without newspapers there is no way to know what happened last night at the school board meeting or the zoning commission hearing. You won’t find it on CNN or NPR. It’s not even on your local TV news station unless something deeply controversial was on the agenda.

Local news was the unique province of local newspapers. And local news coverage is dying. As newspapers reduce staff, it’s the reporter who sat in on those tedious city council meetings who is vanishing despite the fact that Americans—who have lost faith in national media—still give high marks to local journalism. That’s bad for the people who live in those communities. It’s bad for the organizations that need people to know what they’ve been doing and have planned. It’s bad for democracy. As Pacific Standard put it last year:

Healthy local news coverage provides a watchdog microscope on state and local government. Government meetings are almost invariably open to the public, but this does little good if no one outside the government actually attends. News reporters are the ones incentivized to look for scandals—mismanaged funds, favoritism, abuse of power, graft, waste, and so forth. Who will catch these abuses if reporters aren’t present in the room? Who will deter public officials from engaging in any lecherous activities?

Declining news coverage can also undermine representation. At least one study has found that legislators tend to better represent their districts when the media provides better coverage of those constituents. Weaker news coverage also results in a less engaged citizenry, and one that’s less knowledgeable about politics.

The situation is worse in rural areas. Urban dwellers are likely to get some local news coverage from their metropolitan newspapers. Rural residents, however, wind up getting coverage of the local news from the big city where the metropolitan daily is located. Nobody covers the small-town news.

Rethinking community relations

The decline of local journalism presents an intriguing opportunity for companies with operations in local communities. Whether it’s home to your headquarters or a manufacturing facility, you have employees who live in those communities and experience the same want of local reporting. Most organizations recognize the value of a strong community relations program. These efforts traditionally are confined to charitable donations, corporate sponsorships, and employee volunteerism at community events.

Companies should consider taking up the cause of local reporting.

This is not an entirely original idea. Alabama Power publishes the Alabama News Center, a journalistic endeavor that reports statewide on business, community, and innovation. (You can listen to my FIR podcast interview with Ike Piggot about the Alabama News Center.) The rationale for a utility making the investment in statewide journalism supports the organization’s business objectives: attract business to Alabama and encourage those that are already there to stay. If you doubt the site’s journalistic principles, consider that it is routinely pitched by other companies with ideas for stories.

Also, keep in mind that the Edelman Trust Barometer routinely shows the public demanding that business step in and address societal issues where government, NGOs, and the media have failed to perform. Media is without question failing to provide local news reporting.

Addressing challenges

The biggest challenge companies would face is maintaining objectivity. After all, if the zoning commission is considering the company’s request for a variance to build a facility, any reporting by the company would be suspect. There are ways around this, though. One would be for some of the dollars earmarked for community relations to be spent on hiring journalists to work for an independent outlet, free of influence by the company. Another would be to solicit employee volunteers—just as companies do for employee advocacy programs—then train the volunteers in the fundamentals of reporting, then have them contribute to a dedicated local news site (just as advocates are trained to interact effectively on social media) where their authenticity would lend credibility.

Of course, corporate ownership of local news coverage is an imperfect concept, but it’s better than the vacuum the news media’s abdication has created. It would be in companies’ best interests to produce objective, balanced coverage; an informed public will generally make informed decisions, which should benefit all but unethical organizations. No local news initiative should be undertaken with an agenda of currying favor or producing favorable outcomes for company projects. And of course, the affiliation between the company and the local news channel would have to be completely transparent, with any conflicts of interest disclosed in each article.

Most stories, though, would have no connection to the company. Decisions made at a school board or traffic commission meeting don’t affect companies for the most part; they do, however, affect employees with children or cars in the local community. A local news initiative would also elevate the company’s profile in the community, enhancing the view of the company as a committed neighbor making important contributions.

With the public’s perception of business’s role evolving, a local news initiative could revitalize an important activity while creating deeper connections between company and community.

This piece was originally published by Shel Holtz: Communicating at the Intersection of Business and Technology

  • About the Author:Shel Holtz

    Shel Holtz

    Shel Holtz, ABC (Accredited Business Communicator), is Director of Internal Communications of Webcor, a San Francisco-based general contractor. He was previously principal of Holtz Communication + Tec…

    Full Bio | More from Shel Holtz


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