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In Soviet Russia, newspaper reads *you*

July 8, 2009

The Los Angeles Times’ James Rainey is trying to make newspapers profitable again, today:

Why aren’t more newspapers holding food festivals or sponsoring seminars to cook or sample cuisines with their food and restaurant writers? Couldn’t critics lead discussion groups at music, theater and film festivals?

Rainey argues that this stuff should be charged for and used to fund the journalism operation. I think that’s a little ambitious, if not a little presumptuous (do people really want to pay to listen to a film critic not named Roger Ebert talk about movies?) but it’s nevertheless a good idea and one worth trying in one way or another.

Moreover, I think Rainey’s point that newspapers ought to be out in their communities, continuing the conversations that start online and in print, is something that just isn’t understood right now. “Well, we wrote the story, it’s right there in the paper! What more do you need to know?” Quite honestly, a lot. Just look at the average comment thread (and how many journalists are even there, carrying on the conversation?).

Besides that, events like this could better endear a newspaper or newsbrand to its community. Media hate seems like it’s at an all-time high—perhaps because while the community is engaging one another online (and, again, on newspapers’ own Web sites!) and in public, newspaper staffs are sticking their noses up, content to stand by their one-and-done stories and avoid mingling with the riffraff (I mean, if you want to talk to a journalist, take out a pen and write a letter to the editor already). Somewhere along the way, objectivity warped into detachment. Consequently, people don’t identify their local news staff (or paper, or Web site) as something that matters.

I see much better community engagement from neighborhood bloggers—people who are of the community and who take what happens to it personally. I can’t offer any hard results, but I’d bet if you asked 10 Capitol Hill Seattle readers to name the guy who runs the site, most of them would know the answer (or they’d at least know Justin by his screen name, jseattle). On the other hand, I’d expect maybe two or three out of 10 Seattle Times readers to be able to name even one journalist on staff.

Recognition matters. If people don’t know you, they can’t be expected to care. Newspapers need to learn that and they need to learn that the days of everyone seeking out a newspaper, or finding one on their doorstep, are over. The paper needs to seek out the people.

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