This post is part of a series examining the links between local media and how people relate to their cities. We explore how local media affects a range of things: from how people engage with local and state government, to their sense of community and belonging. The flow of information enables relationships to form between people (see: Facebook). And information enables us to interact with and make choices about how we participate. I think few would disagree that local media has been key to forming a sense of local identity, and critical to sustaining vibrant and informed communities.

And while we now have a glut of choice in media – particularly in cities – the strength of local news as an institution has foundered. Pair that with increasing migration of new residents to cities, and the ease of communication with faraway friends, and it’s clear that there’s major forces shifting to create the cities of our future.

Local news organizations have long been the stewards of this flow of information through the city. So we decided to find out how changes in their industry have affected their activities, and their communities. In the conversations I’ll be having over the next few weeks, focus will be pretty wide ranging; from the economics of media, to newsroom dynamics, and the role and effects of technology as a journalistic tool.

The first victim is Louis Hansen, a journalist who started reporting in 1995. A few years at the Philadelphia Inquirer notwithstanding, Hansen has spent his career at The Virginian Pilot, a daily newspaper in Norfolk, Virginia. He’s currently a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford, where he agreed to chat with me about the local news ecosystem. He also shares experiences from the newsroom and observations about how changes in reporting affect the way information is produced, and how it might change the readers’ experience.

When he joined the Pilot in 1997, he recalls they had “about 250 journalists in the newsroom”, and Sunday circulation of about 230,000 copies.

The paper’s penetration, defined as “the number of people in the community who read or experienced our product at least once a week” was somewhere between 50% to two thirds of the the community of 1.2 million people. The area is also served by an additional news daily, owned by the Tribune Company, that is “about half” the size of the Pilot, plus four local television stations.

These numbers allowed the Pilot to approach advertisers positioned as the largest platform in the community. Almost twenty years later, the Pilot remains the dominant news media player in the

But retaining dominance doesn’t imply that it’s all been stable – Hansen cites daily circulation at 130,000 – a big drop from the daily 200,000 copies it distributed at it’s peak.

And for media, this is a big, big problem. Decline in circulation hits media’s bottom line twice. Evidently revenue from subscriptions is reduced. But less circulation equals a smaller audience, meaning that the value of promotional space is worth less to advertisers.

“The first meeting I ever had with a publisher was at the [Philadelphia] Inquirer. It was probably 1995 or 96, and he came to say that times were bad in the industry and they had to tighten up, and that there might be layoffs of cuts. And so for the next 20 years of my career, I’ve had meetings like that with publishers at all the papers that I’ve worked at. And they’ve all had the same message.”

As for many papers, the newsroom cuts are staggering: from 250 journalists until about 2007, to around 120 people today.

But unlike in other industries, the cuts in staff have effects that go much further than just the economics of jobs. Fewer journalists has meant cutting beats, and reducing the size of teams who report on everything from State Legislature, to the general coverage in five other cities in southeast Virginia.

In these five cities, cuts meant a single reporter was now assigned to cover two City Halls plus two or three school districts plus and plus two or three courthouses. For individual reporters, the coverage area suddenly doubled or tripled. And it also means that reporters are forced to become about the stories they produce, taking a greater proportion of the information they receive at face value.

“When I arrived at the newspaper we had a full time bureau in Richmond, and we had, I want to say, five reporters, an editorial assistant, and an editor. And we had an editorial writer as well… I think we probably had a full time staff of about eight or nine, year round. But when the General Assembly was in session, we added a few more reporters from the Norfolk Bureau, because that’s when the General Assembly would be considering bills.” Staff in Richmond was gradually cut to a single full-time Richmond reporter who covers State Government, plus just one supplemental reporter from Norfolk during the G.A. sessions.

The cuts, from regional reporters to the magical shrinking Richmond bureau, have profound effects. Where there was a whole team covering laws being made or dispatched, along with all handouts and giveaways the G.A. now there were just a couple of reporters. “If you’re covering two or three places, the demands are to write the story, get it out, and move on to the next thing. And you have to make really hard choices, so the coverage lacks the depth it once had.”

Less scrutiny from the press does give government more power over the narrative. “If they’re giving you the news” says Hansen “there’s a better chance now that [the story you’re given] will be the version that gets into the newspaper”.

Incidentally, (though Hansen notes that it’s “not necessarily connected to this”), the Governor of Virginia was recently indicted for corruption. “Did it have anything to do with so many fewer reporters being in Richmond?” he adds, “You can’t really say. But I don’t think the environment in a State Capitol is healthier when there are less reporters.”

At this point I ask about tools: shouldn’t technology help in this regard? Have tools helped?

“Not to be a heretic in Silicon Valley, but software has in some ways made a reporter’s life more difficult – and of course in some ways made it easier.” Research in the form of the ‘nuts and bolts’ documents, such as court records and City Council minutes, are now posted online, saving reporters from the hassle physically retrieving them.

“On the flipside, where we were once managing a daily newspaper and had set deadlines for stories, and expectations, we’re now managing a 24 hour news service.” Meaning that journalists are expected to post stories, and continue to report them and update them as they unfold. It’s not only more tedious, but it’s also more time consuming: “on breaking news stories, you may write two or three different versions of the story [for publication throughout the day], whereas before you only had to write one story.”

He adds “I don’t think there are a tremendous amount of shortcuts.” Drastic cuts mean that coverage is inevitably less comprehensive. “It’s impossible for two reporters to do the job of 12 reporters – fewer eyes and ears means that there’s fewer ways to get information out to the public.”

And what about data?

“There are great things that you can do with data, trends that you could pull out of groups of data and census work. But at the same time, reporting is a very human endeavor. It’s asking questions, and it’s trying to find a round understanding of the community that you live in, and presenting it back to the people that care about it.” It also depends on journalist’s comfort and proficiency with data. Large newspapers have employed large teams of data trained journalists. “To have a person who marries the computer data skills with reporting skills is extremely valuable.”

In mid-sized, it doesn’t seem to be quite so simple. In the rare instance that data savvy reporters are hired, it’s individual reporters, no teams. (The Pilot had one such position.) So individual strengths and weaknesses get amplified as the perspective of the newspaper. I would also imagine that in the absence of teams, the bias might be toward computing skills, with less regard to reporting skills.

Hansen has admitted to liking data himself. He described experiences writing trend stories, noting that he’d collect data first and then dig into it. But even so, that data “is just a paragraph or two in a story, and the story really is the people behind the data and what they do.” He went on to cite one example, a rather fascinating story about an uptick of ‘failure to return stolen property’ instances in court records.

At the same time, “both narrative and data are great narrative tools. And I think narrative trend stories without data are shit. But also data without a sense of context has less value.”

Practically speaking, declining newspaper revenues have resulted in less filtering, investigation, and pushback from reporters. There’s less depth, and fewer perspectives, and a narrower scope of views represented in a medium that reaches fewer people each day. From the supply side “it’s an issue of bodies, not an issue of will.”

From the demand side, less informed citizens simply care less; you can’t care about what you don’t know. But my thought is that the ‘how’ – that is, how to get those stories circulating, how to create awareness, how to bring people together through information in common that is both culturally and practically relevant – is still very elusive.

Data isn’t a silver bullet. For better or worse, data in newsrooms is still in the realm of specialists or at least a hugely time consuming process of database creation. From my end, I’ve seen that the process of reporting on data relies on tools that are incomplete, and often unwieldy. And one such tool is the data itself – elusive, siloed, and disorganized.

On this last point, Hansen seems to agree. “I think the hardest thing for me as a journalist is liberating the data. And getting it from the sources that have it. Particularly the government sources.” Many governments are cash starved as well. And on this he argues that it might be in the government’s interest “to underserve the record keepers – to make the records harder to access. It’s an easy fallback for a government official that doesn’t want people looking into their business.”

“So to liberate data, be it from schools, be it from police, courts, city budgets, state budgets, those things… that’s vital. And being able to organize that and get it in a cohesive way – and really being able to understand and have the sketches of a story, with an understanding of what the narrative of a community is… that’s vital.”

And as for Hansen, his data wish is a pennant for the New York Mets.

Get on it, Moneyballers.

 

Norfolk is a small navy town in the southeastern part of the state. Their economy is driven by two main industries: Navy and military spending and tourism in Virginia Beach. There’s also some government work and similar things, but there’s not much presence in from other major industries.
Let’s make a quick disclaimer here: ‘passive’ for a reporter is not the same as being passive. And reporters are vital to story origination, because at the end of the day someone does need to pound the pavement for all those secondary rewrites to happen. The demands of covering such a large reporting load don’t leave time for doing a ton of digging to see if there’s more to a certain statement.