For Troubled News Industry, Is It Enough to ‘Pivot’?

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It’s old news that the news industry is in big trouble. But a story I heard last week about the gap between the local media and the community in Vero Beach, Fla., really drove it home for me.

The story was told by longtime Tribune Co. and Hearst Corp. business, advertising and digital executive Buzz Wurzer at the opening of a “reinventing journalism” meeting in Chicago sponsored by the Reynolds Journalism Institute. Wurzer said some key public and business officials in Vero Beach didn’t want to work with media outlets because “all they did was point fingers.” This attitude is glaringly symbolic of the media’s problem nationally — a majority of Americans mistrust it, surveys consistently show.

Wurzer wants to change that attitude, and he and other officials at the local community foundation are working with area nonprofits to determine unmet needs in the community. They will share their findings with the media to increase public awareness.

For participants at the meeting, the story of the media-community gap in Vero Beach could be applied to many other communities, including localities where they are part of the media.

A handful of insurgents, like Jonathan Stray, a longtime computer scientist before he migrated into journalism (to the Associated Press, where he is now a consultant), tried to keep “Pivot Point,” as the meeting was short-titled, from getting bogged down in endless talk about the “problem.”

“Let’s just assume that the traditional newspaper organization is a loss and will not survive, and come up with other plans to produce local journalism,” Stray said. “I may or may not be right about the possibility of survival for the former news industry, but I think this point of view forces the right questions.”

Quit focusing on “news consumers,” Stray said, and aim to serve “users” — not as a mass, but as individuals, each one with different interests and goals. Users needs more than “information” — they need “information tools,” he said.

Some people want to know more about Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton than about local news, he said — but there are still enough others who want “to change and build our societies” in ways big and small.

After two days of brainstorming, the 34 “action summit” participants presented seven “do-able” projects to take the tradition-bound news industry to “the world we want to create,” in the words of Randy Picht, the new executive director of RJI. (My project, Local America, was one of them.)

One project that intrigued and excited me was the “Community Sandbox” championed by Chuck Peters, CEO of the company that publishes the digitally innovative Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette. Sandbox would do exactly what Stray was advocating – give Cedar Rapidans tools they need to get engaged individually and collectively with myriad local education challenges – everything from bullying to how to create a system of lifelong learning.

A big question, though, is whether Sandbox, even if it gets off the ground, and even if it attracts and engages Cedar Rapidians, would generate enough revenue to help make sure the Gazette, which was founded in 1883, will be around for another century or so – in one form or another.

Advertisers, which have chased eyeballs in the digital space, now want the minds and hearts behind those eyeballs, particularly at the local and hyperlocal levels, they say. There’s some encouraging evidence that’s true, but, overall, it’s still a case of “digital dimes” vs. “print dollars,” even though digital is growing and print is shrinking. For all of its digital forwardness, the company that owns the Gazette had to slash its 600-person payroll by 100 in 2009.

Maybe it’s not enough for the news industry to “pivot,” keeping one foot firmly on the floor. Maybe it needs to take both feet off the floor and leap. One leap would be a new kind of engagement — the news media reaching out, up close and personal, to connect with the community that is so mistrustful of it.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is developing a website to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from local experts and users of the site.

Main image courtesy of Flickr user anselm.