Rethinking the way we get our news

It’s been a few weeks since McClatchy (and The Fresno Bee) announced an initial round of layoffs in an attempt to tighten its fiscal belt. With daily news highlighting tough economic times, such downsizing comes as no surprise, though the sting for those affected remains.

Certainly, we’re all feeling the pinch, but the economy’s role in the declining revenue of local media—newspaper and television alike—is not nearly as large as the role of local media’s dying business models.

My parents tell me stories of a time when people woke early in the morning to read the daily newspaper. They insist this was a requirement to be an informed citizen. So what happened? Why do few members (comparatively) of my generation read the newspaper?

To say that the Internet played a role in the shift in media delivery seems redundant to a digital native. Nonetheless, many media outlets—especially those serving the Valley—still haven’t processed exactly what this means, and the larger the organization, the harder it seems for them to adapt to such rapid change.

Not only is information more abundant and accessible for me than it was for my parents, most barriers for reaching a worldwide audience have been removed, meaning that almost anyone can become a source of information from anywhere in the world.

Does that mean everything posted online should be trusted? Of course not. But it does mean experts can share their knowledge outside the span of a newspaper delivery route or a local TV broadcast. It means that for technology news I can read the blog of a Silicon Valley insider, rather than waiting for a watered-down version of the story here 200 miles away. It means I can read the experiences, in first-person, of a flood victim 2,000 miles away. It also means the “neutral” and/or “expert” role of a local journalist may be in jeopardy.

I don’t say any of this to pick on the Bee or any other media outlet; rather, I say it to challenge them to change. I don’t want to be informed through the same channels my parents were—I’m part of a different generation, and some say we’re simply “wired” differently.

With that, I offer Valley media three steps toward regaining their role as a center of information (for those of us online, at least):

  • Stop restricting content. Paid content is no longer a viable business model—it’s simply too easy to type a different address into the browser if one encounters a roadblock. Stop asking for authentication for older news stories, and focus on making information as accessible as possible (if you need a place to start, I’d recommend looking at your search button). I’d also recommend that when participating in community dialog (i.e., posting on other websites or listservs), don’t just link back to your site; add additional thoughts, and respond to comments.
  • Give me the pen typewriter keyboard. Okay, not me as an individual, but as a metaphor for the community. Build in features that give community members the ability to publish alongside your journalists, reporters and editors. I know that’s scary, but marginalizing our input to “community” sites and blogs isn’t enough. On that note, open up the commenting process throughout all your web properties so that only legitimate spam is blocked (or delayed)—and as mentioned above, respond to comments.
  • Focus on quality and trust, not saturation. I realize all businesses must make money, but I can’t help questioning the effectiveness of a half dozen or more ads on a single webpage. If I’m on a site (if I didn’t make it clear earlier, I’m rarely going to read a printed piece or watch a TV broadcast), I don’t want to dig to find the message in a digital pile of ads—especially the obtrusive moving ones that “turn” over the screen like a page. Sell quality advertising spots, and focus on the value of actual visibility and relevance as opposed to page views.

This is certainly not an all-inclusive list, but it’s a place to start.

Our expectations for and understandings of communication are changing rapidly, and if local media doesn’t understand and respond to that change, we (as a society, not just a generation) will look elsewhere for information. I’m certain that my children (once I have them) won’t pick up a paper to read the news, and they may not even turn on the TV—will local media be able to keep up?

James Collier is director of community relations at Fresno Pacific University. He is a Millennial, a digital native and a former web editor who has done graduate research in online communities.