Local news needs to slow down its pace

It took a children’s video game to help me to figure this out

Mario’s replacement is second from right. Credit: Nickelodeon. ©2013 Viacom International Inc.

My 5-year-old nephew introduced me to a video game called Paw Patrol last Christmas. It is essentially Super Mario Bros., but replace Mario with a Dalmatian wearing a firefighter helmet. The truth is I’m terrible at video games. After many failed attempts, I decided I needed a new strategy: make the dog run slower. It seemed simple, but I couldn’t seem to heed to my own advice. Then my nephew started chiming in: “Slow down, auntie! Slow down.” His advice started to resonate because he can convince me to do anything. So, I did slow down, and I started winning.

It’s time the local journalism industry starts listening to my nephew too. Newsrooms have undoubtedly been swept up by the pace of the digital world and those who drive it. The industry is frantic. Frantic to be first with breaking news. Frantic to be the best in video, text, photo and graphics. Frantic to survive amidst declining ad revenues. I’m guilty. I’ve managed a video team that I’ve pushed to shoot faster, edit faster, type faster. Be the fastest. Win that top place in Google search by publishing first! But what is this getting us besides more clicks?

This frenetic energy is evident in our output. Too many stories with grammatical and factual errors. Too many stories that don’t resonate with our audiences. Too many stories that look just like our competitor’s versions. And too many missed story opportunities. If we’re not taking the time to slow down, and learn who our online audiences are and could be, then we’re in trouble. A recent Knight Foundation report found that “fifty-eight percent of Americans say the increased number of news sources makes it harder to be informed.” To rise above the noise, we must take the time to rethink our strategy.

I have worked at this frantic pace — like many journalists have — my entire career. Every year feels a little bit faster. But this year is different. I’ve been at Stanford as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow studying how we can make local news more relevant to communities. When I returned at the beginning of the year from my Paw Patrol-filled holiday break, I committed to not just slowing down in the game, but in life. The first few weeks my mind was spinning with ideas of how to solve the local news crisis. Community art projects. A handbook on newsroom financial models. A campaign to push reading local. But then I’d open the Paw Patrol app for a little break and hear that little voice reminding me to “slow down.” And I have.

We can’t slow down the pace at which President Donald Trump tweets. We can’t slow down the number of traffic accidents or local crimes that occur in our communities. And we can’t slow down short-lived internet crazes. But we as people and as journalists can slow down. Here’s what I have learned by slowing down over the last three months, and why I think local news should do the same.

Slow down and get to know your audience

I started my exploration of how to make local news more relevant to communities by talking to other journalists and experts in this field. But I felt I was running in circles by not going straight to the source: the reader. After some sage advice from a JSK adviser, I honed in on one type of resident in a community: newcomers. I interviewed 10 new Bay Area residents between the ages of 25 and 50. I wanted to know what information sources they are using to learn about their new communities. News flash: It’s not local media; it’s primarily word of mouth. And I now have some qualitative data to support my hypothesis as well as information on what resources they are using, personal habits, goals and frustrations.

These conversations have been invaluable, but they take time. I’ve spent hours setting up the calls, interviewing people and analyzing the conversations. This would not have been time considered well spent in previous jobs. But I have learned more about young professionals and parents —a key audience — than I ever have before. We’ve made many mistakes at the local level in the last decade as technology has transformed our business. I’d argue one of the biggest mistakes is the failure to build relationships with our online readers.

As ad revenue declines, news organizations are looking to reader revenue. New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet made this point at a recent talk at the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Stanford. He said with over 3 million paid subscribers, The New York Times is shifting its focus from advertisers as its core customer to readers. All publications will likely need to make this shift as Google and Facebook continue to siphon off the majority of advertising dollars. Our future relies on our relationships with our customers, aka readers. We must start rebuilding that relationship by slowing down and finding out who they are, what motivates them and how we can better connect with them.

Let’s start a conversation on this topic. Share your experience and comments below or email me jmckello@stanford.edu.