The truth behind community journalism

  • Friday, July 18, 2014

I've been reading “Saving Community Journalism,” a must-read for all publishers, editors and journalists. It was written by Laurinburg native Penelope (Penny) Muse Abernathy and published by The University of North Carolina Press in Chapel Hill.

At 264 pages, it is the most in-depth book ever on the journalism industry, a peek behind the curtain into the digital age. Ever since USA Today shook up the publishing industry, newspapers have been losing money like it was going out of style. “Veteran media executive” Abernathy looks at long-term profitability, giving advice and telling leaders how to look at new opportunities to generate revenue.

One suggestion is load more work on already overworked journalists without them realizing it. Give them a “blog” and disguise it as a column. “WE WERE WRONG” in 72-point front-page font is what our front page looked like after my editor dispatched me to bring a reporter in to the office as she wept and cried like a baby.

In days where libel threatens newsrooms and judges should do away with this silly law, big-time news stories are currently killed because front-room offices are scared to death of being sued.

Money. That's the bottom line. As a freelance journalist, so many editors are turning down my work, saying they are looking for uber-local stories.

I used to do my hiking merit badge out in the scorching Sandhills and pines near where Penny grew up with her sister Jane, both beautiful women. Their mother was my seventh-grade teacher, a super educator. They all lived near Camp Monroe and my scoutmaster's pond.

There is a companion website to the book, www.businessofnews.unc.edu.

Penny looks at a weekly in West Virginia with 7,000 circulation and a 50,000 daily in California to a 150,000 weekly in Chicago. She is formerly an executive with the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. She is Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“The engaging style and practical examples in this book will appeal to both journalists and scholars.” – Library Journal.

The subhead to the title is “The Path to Profitability.” When you hear someone say newspapers just care about the bottom line, the buck, it's true. Why do super investigative articles get saved to Sunday papers? Sunday papers sell the most copies.

“Why It Is Critical That Newspapers Survive” gives a chilly alternative to the disappearance of newspapers. The country needs a watchdog other than the NSA. A chart for dropping advertising income shows how the landscape has changed over the years.

The author reminds the public that local businesses need to support their newspaper for the good of the community.

Remember when Time Warner merged with AOL? What may make the reader sick is whenever the Pulitzer Prize is mentioned. There are some things that are more important than the Prize, like self-respect and knowing what to do when a journalist gets a death threat and has to give an expose away to send a slew of criminals to jail.

The reporter was told not to ask any more questions and drop the investigation because the paper was fighting a $1.5 million libel suit from the past.

The journalist received a certificate of appreciation from the state House and the state Senate.

Just think what must happen when you get to Kissinger and Argentina, Israel and Gaza and Isis and Iraq.

Berkshire Hathaway is called a white knight. We would like to hear more about companies that get in trouble and change their name to do more damage. Warren Buffett is not a white knight. There are people starving in the city I live in, Winston-Salem, and poor people sell the Winston-Salem Journal on the street corner.

Digital revenue is not much, the reader learns, and it is already public knowledge since some papers have switched their online status to free. We learn that staff costs are the second highest costs at newspapers.

Why are newspapers failing? At the Laurinburg Exchange there was a story about a friend of mine who was busted with marijuana when I was in high school. It was treated like a high crime, and he was sent to prison for a few joints. When he later died in a vehicular crash, the reporter culled the information from a police report, adding that there was a beer can found beside the truck which flipped after hitting a train track.

Newspapers never go behind stories and clear someone's reputation. My friend, at our reunion at Scotch Meadows Country Club before he died, told me that he always remembered me telling him not to feel bad about his transgression because he didn't do anything bad. Durn, it's legal today in the same room the president was in the other day. Abernathy does a super job of research and interviewing.

Cross-platform work and sports coverage seem to be a way out for papers economically. There's not much inclusion of the journalist in this book. We know that if our work is taped on the refrigerator, the paper will sell. That means a lot of education stories.

These days school boards and hospitals are hiring people who control their public relations. You cannot get in a school in some districts to cover the kids dressed in their favorite library book character, the best picture day of the year.

Boy, if you don't follow the rules of a school, principal or superintendent, then you are banned. Reporters need the support of their front office to get on the fridge. Also teachers post a lot of pictures. Journalists hate taking photos. It gets in the way of reporting. You drop the recorder.

Journalists need to take a newspaper or two to an assignment especially on publication day for a weekly. We are your best ambassador on the street. Wear a tie every once and a while. When I was single, I got a lot of dates when I dressed up. That's how I met my wife.

Take a rate card with you on the road. People always ask for rates all the time, and if you don't have it, your boss may miss out on the bucks. Pity the boss. Look at your check every payday. It might go up if your work sells a few more papers.

Reporters are conduits for business. How many times did a boss sit on a news story from me? It is like a game of cat and mouse sometimes. The front office newspaper folks dine with the chamber folks and shield you from stories. Make some friends of your own.

When Penny mentions John Henry Moore from the Laurinburg Exchange, I remember a tall man with a wife who taught me piano on Tuesdays in McLaurin Acres. His gentle manner meant he would always approach me at First Baptist Church and ask me how my journalism career was going. Little pay. He would laugh.

Her tribute to Mr. Moore is worth the asking price for this book.

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