…The People Trying to Save Local News
(By Tim Coco) There has been much talk in news industry circles about saving local news. Unfortunately, most initiatives to do just that really seem to be not-so-thinly-veiled efforts to save newspapers.
According to Pew Research Center, “Total weekday circulation for U.S. daily newspapers fell to 35 million, while total Sunday circulation declined to 38 million – the lowest levels since 1945.” The slide continues.
Radio deserves credit for largely continuing to serve its listeners with local news, but it must also share the blame for allowing the conversation to focus on putting ink on dead trees. Firstly, and shamefully, many radio stations no longer even have news departments. For these stations, original local news reporting is seen simply as an unnecessary expense. Secondly—and this is where blame really comes in—many stations that do provide local news read it from newspapers or from wire reports originating in newspaper articles. It’s no wonder why most national efforts aimed at saving news have a myopic focus on newspapers.
To the first point, my station, 97.9 WHAV FM, is the only local news station in its county and the only one in several adjacent counties. WHAV not only airs local City Council and School Committee meetings live, but sends a reporter to each meeting. Staff visit police stations, cover court, and dig deep in City Hall and the neighborhoods. Long-form versions of the stories with photographs appear simultaneously at WHAV.net and on social media. WHAV’s approach is the model, and the station has thus attracted a loyal and large following. To the second point, WHAV provides original local news, twice-an-hour weekdays, and breaking news when it happens. WHAV, for example, was the only local radio station reporting the Columbia Gas explosions and fires in three communities last Sept. 13 that resulted in one death.
During recent recruitment efforts, I was dumbfounded by a single question raised in separate interviews with two news reporter applicants from different major market public radio stations. They asked, “Where do you get your local news?” Both admitted their organizations initially find stories in the local, daily newspaper. I couldn’t help but respond, “Local news reported by WHAV has never appeared in a newspaper.”
In fact, the last newspaper office in our principal city of 63,000 people closed in 2012. Our economically disadvantaged city has been plagued by the opioid crisis, gang wars and, in notable instances, lack of government transparency. These attributes catch the attentions of the major foundations, but minds wander when one mentions radio could possibly offer the solution.
In almost every analysis about why newspapers are failing, the Internet is blamed. Craigslist and Monster are held responsible for taking away lucrative classified advertising dollars. Radio, too, has been harmed unnecessarily by digital.
Despite radio’s above 90% reach, many advertisers rank digital highly for its so-called “accountability.” Of course, this is a myth. In the words of Havas Media CEO Colin Kinsella, “The most accountable media turned into the least accountable media and the most filled with fraud.” Kinsella should know; he operates one of the largest integrated marketing communications agencies in the world. Most notably, however, was Procter & Gamble’s $200 million cut in digital spending during 2017. As AdWeek reported, P&G cited “bots and brand safety concerns.”
Sales and development staff must emphasize radio is naturally a digital medium as well. Like most stations, WHAV streams audio from its website and via many platforms, such as TuneIn. It also live streams video of certain talk programs to Facebook as well as WHAV.tv. Radio needs to do a better job of promoting its digital advantage.
In searches for local news solutions, the larger and more pretentious foundations seem singularly focused on saving newspapers followed by propping up mostly amateur, online-only news sites. Mention radio’s traditional model of selling advertising or underwriting to pay the bills, the big think tanks respond, “Oh, that won’t work.” Broadcasters know differently, but there is another problem.
Radio needs to do a better job attracting and training sales and development talent.
Ask a child what she or he wants to be when they grow up, and the usual responses have stayed on the list for generations—doctor, veterinarian, police officer, firefighter, teacher and astronaut. “Sales” or “development” aren’t on the list. They generally aren’t on the minds of students entering college either, or even after graduation. Yet it is the number one path to high incomes and top management posts.
It may be a societal problem. The combination of a “full-employment” economy, the displacement of local retailers by national box stores, people who “don’t know what they don’t know,” and a general inclination towards lazily being “order takers” contribute. Telephone calls and emails, by themselves, rarely net good results. Use of shoe leather and Chris Lytle’s appointment-getting system yield the best results.
Radio is the solution to saving local news. Restore news departments, commit to original reporting, and recruit and train staff to sell it.
Tim Coco is President and GM of WHAV-LP, Haverhill, Mass. He began his career more than 40 years ago at the original WHAV (AM) 1490. Reach him by calling 978-374-1900 or visiting www.WHAV.net.