Local news and mastery of the press

When people ask me what Twitter is for I always say, “Twitter is great for following individual reporters, not just the publication they work for.” I’m reminded of this as these local reporters are telling people they need to pay for local news.

I agree people should pay for local news and anything else they consume. But like any rational person, I’m only interested in paying for a product that meets my needs. If I wanted to pay for the promise of something, I’d visit Kickstarter.

With local news we have options between the Indy Star, the Indianapolis Business Journal, Indy Monthly, Nuvo, four local TV stations, WFYI, and probably more I’m forgetting.

I have significant problems with all of them.

Television news is terrible and designed for the least common denominator. I don’t care what random people on the street think about something they’ve never thought about. I don’t care about the crime and fire stories because there are always gangs fighting over drugs and buildings catching on fire. A cursory glance at FOX59.com right now shows 28 stories. Nine of them are stock photos of IMPD cruisers or police tape and are about crime. One is about potato chips, one about pie, one about grilled cheese, a state police lip sync video, the death of two children, four about the Colts, and a couple business stories.

The Indy Star isn’t much better. More about Colts, the VMAs, a crappy pizza place in Carmel opining about road construction, something about a guy named Adam Driver who I’ve never heard of talking about the KKK, and more still about the Colts and IU sports.

Nuvo focuses on a niche I don’t care about — local music and arts isn’t something I care to read much about. But they have their audience and seem to do well. Indy Monthly has great pieces from time to time, but appears more as a place for foodies, wine lovers, and the sort. That’s fine, but I don’t live to eat all the time.

I’m guessing these outlets have viewership data that tells them crime n’ grime sells. That anything with Colts attached gets clicks.

I can’t justify paying for that. You are selling a product I do not care about.

What I care about is rare. A legitimate news story about corruption in the City-County Building, the Mayor’s race, and sharp reporting on what large organizations around Central Indiana are doing.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. I want more smart coverage that shows a mastery of a segment of news. But that costs money, and without it, I get less. I hear that argument. But publications like the Star seem to relish the endless sports coverage and junk like random pizza joints closing in Carmel because they have their reporters chasing stories for the sake of stories at times when there just is no news.

The Star’s coverage on USA Gymnastics is stellar investigative reporting. But if I pay for all the Colts and Carmel fluff, I’m never guaranteed the Star will put the money into more USA Gymnastics stories. It’s like going to a restaurant where it’s sometimes good, sometimes terrible. Eventually, you stop going altogether.

As the election rolls around, there’s almost no coverage of township races or school board races. Something else I’m sure outlets have viewership data on that says no one reads those stories. Or, they’re so hyper-local and resource-intensive they can’t be produced no matter how much we pay. In things like school board action, we’re almost at the mercy of local bloggers.

The IBJ for its part demonstrates mastery of a segment of news by focussing on matters of importance to business. I think the sustainability and mastery of a news cycle that comes with that focus is in their favor. WFYI’s partnership with Chalkbeat is a good example on the education coverage front. More news outlets would do well to devote their attention to specific areas.

 

Winston Churchill

Hitting the Mark

Before he was Sir Winston Churchill, a young Winston was a writer for the The Daily Graphic. Working as a war correspondent for much of his reporting career, he became one of Britain’s most admired and sought-after writers. His reporting would lead the Boers to capture him in Africa in 1893. The daring late-night escape he undertook by himself from a Boer POW camp would catapult Churchill as a hero of the Empire.

That experience gave Churchill a lot to write about, too. It also shaped his views on war, duty, and what it was like to be a prisoner. That would come in handy later in life when he would be a prison warden adamant that prisoners deserved fresh air and books.

But it was his writing that made the man. Without it he never would have found himself in the situations that made him who he was. That was true in 1893, during WWI, and later in WWII.

46 years after the Boer war, Prime Minister Winston Churchill stared down Nazis. In desperate need of help, he reached for his pen. Late one evening by candlelight, Churchill wrote a letter to the new President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Churchill wrote what he thought was a great letter. He congratulated the new president on his campaign victory. He told him Britons stood alongside him and the Americans. And more to the point asked for Roosevelt to send Britain as many decommissioned, old, and otherwise serviceable but unused planes, tanks, and other equipment America had lying around. He knew America had 50 destroyers we weren’t using and Churchill needed them.

Churchill sealed his letter and sent it to Washington. Then he waited.

Weeks passed with no reply from Roosevelt. Not even a telegram.

Publicly Churchill demurred that Roosevelt “must be busy” and that his letter “got lost amongst all the new mail and shuffling around in the White House”. FDR, after all, was battling a depression domestically and more mail was coming into the White House at a rate never seen. The White House hired the first significant and modern mail staff to just handle all the letters.

But quietly, aides said the lack of response hurt Churchill. Not because he needed to know he had a new friend, but because as Churchill mused, “A writer always wants to know his writing hit the mark. And this did not.”

Churchill penned what he thought was a perfect piece. And it never accomplished its goal. It never hit the mark.

Later when Churchill and FDR would meet and form one of the best bromances in western civilization, Churchill learned FDR had read that inaugural letter but did nothing with it. Politically, involvement in the “European war” was still too touchy. FDR had too many other things to do. So, his response was to not respond at all.

I think about this a lot when I write emails. I think about it more when I write blog posts because while I see posts do well in Google search results, few get more than several dozen readers when first published.

I write and design and build things for clients and know thousands and hundreds of thousands of people will see it. Meanwhile, I can only hope it hits the mark.

And frequently I do not. In fact, 99% of the time I do not. I do not entice people to buy, or share, or read, or watch, or take a survey, or even click a link.

I’m working on a book, which is nearly finished and will release later this year. I can only hope it hits the mark, too, but realize it probably will not.

This is the creator’s ultimate demon. For people who don’t fancy themselves “creators”, but do sometimes produce a presentation or document, or stand by while someone like me does so for them, they aren’t accustomed to the sting of not hitting the mark. And it hurts.

The best we can do is trudge on, try to get better, and remember that even lions like Churchill missed the mark.