What happens when what readers care about isn’t what gets covered?

I wrote recently about a trip to my hometown in rural Iowa.

A snapshot of a recent Watermelon Days celebration, when the town of Dike, Iowa, gets together for a weekend in the summer. Credit: Luke Osterhaus

I spent time talking to people about how they shared information about their town. The findings will be used to inform my project on local news for the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford.

As I spent time reviewing the interviews with a JSK team that’s studying how to eradicate local news deserts, I realized something that stunned me.

The topics of conversations that held deep meaning to the people I spoke to in rural Iowa would struggle to get coverage at a traditional news outlet.

In one instance, I heard the people I interviewed talking about a car accident. A rollover.

They had lots of questions: Was someone hurt? Why or why not? How did it happen? Was the car damaged?

I can just imagine how savagely a city editor would shoot down a pitch like this. Car rollover? No injuries? Probably not even worthy of a brief.

I also observed how people in Dike were intensely interested to know when a neighbor or a friend got sick. What was wrong? How could they help? How are they doing now?

Other hot topics:

  • Who got in trouble (in high school)
  • Government decisions (such as how recycling services were handled)
  • High school sports

How can local journalists add value to topics like these when more seemingly serious issues loom? Audiences for high school sports stories can be small. And while recycling is important, one could make the argument that local government news should focus on the stories revolving around major expenditures.

Why would a journalist decide to cover such “small” stories, when topics that might attract bigger audiences are ripe for the picking?

I challenged myself to contemplate why they should.

What if we super-served small groups of readers instead of delivering news catering to a broad area, say, an entire city or region?

Disciples of the real-time analytics tool Chartbeat already know this: Readers click on stories that land on the extreme end of the spectrum. A major car accident. A medical miracle. Massive government malfeasance.

But the fact is, while definitely worthy of coverage, these are anomalies within a community, as opposed to a reflection of the topics that drive conversation in everyday life.

I wonder if we should flip the script we’ve learned from Chartbeat. Why not measure our impact differently? Perhaps the topics of intense interest to individual readers actually do have deep meaning that we are just not seeing? Have we really taken the time to listen?

I’d love to see if the concept of super-serving smaller groups of readers would make our work important and essential enough to motivate readers to pay for it. Maybe it would be the kind of news they’d be proud to share and be associated with, as opposed to work they view with suspicion and lack of trust.

My teammates and I spent time trying to define news in light of what we heard from the residents of Dike, Iowa. One person raised the question on whether some of the topics of interest were merely gossip, not worthy of the attention of journalists.

A teammate of mine, Tim Regan-Porter, encouraged us to read “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” by Neil Postman. Postman challenged readers to think about when news actually caused them to take action.

The implied answer is probably not very often.

Like my former neighbors in Dike, Iowa, I too want to know if a neighbor is sick or in trouble. Because if I know that information, perhaps I can take action that’s within my reach. I can’t stop an environmental disaster. I sometimes struggle to grasp my place within broad cultural changes. But I make a damn good lasagna. I could drop it off at the neighbor’s house.

That’s one nice thing to make one person feel better. Maybe as journalists we can start talking about our role in that.

Also reading

News models I’m watching

My favorite tweet this week:


Thoughts? Email me. lrossi18@stanford.edu

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