Journalism’s coverage combover isn’t fooling anyone

Visit many American cities, and you’ll find a local newspaper with a staff half the size of 15 years ago, yet still gamely trying to cover everything it did then.

Welcome to the Age of the Journalism Combover, where the necessary resources no longer exist to cover the desired terrain.

And like non-metaphorical combovers, let’s be honest: We’re not fooling anyone. We’d earn more respect if we just owned reality. Because if the choice comes down to news organizations being comprehensive or being indispensable, it’s not really a choice at all.

Now, some will argue that being comprehensive is what makes a news organization indispensable. There’s surely some truth in that, but the bar for true comprehensiveness is high. Luckily, for a time, so were newspaper profit margins, which allowed newsrooms to expand to where they could cover just about everything. But those days are gone, and gone forever. We cannot be all things to all people. As the revenue burden shifts from advertisers to readers, it’s more important to be the right things to the right people. 

While many newsrooms have already sharpened their focus, there are still far too many that have not. In almost all those cases, any remaining claim of comprehensiveness is thin, as you’ll find beleaguered reporters forced to sacrifice depth for breadth, and geographic areas once handled by five reporters now managed by one. Stretching resources too thin both hurts the quality of the journalism and limits how much effort can be put toward disciplines that will be crucial to future success.

A good case study of how to tackle this challenge is the Miami Herald, where editor Mindy Marques has her newsroom attacking the opposite ends of the journalistic timeline: quick-twitch breaking news and deep investigative work. No, the Herald doesn’t cover every school board hearing or high school football game anymore. And, no, most Miami neighborhoods no longer have dedicated reporters. But the Herald remains a local institution because it has focused on immediacy and depth, and stopped trying to catch its breadth.

Here are six recommendations on how newsrooms can safely abandon the illusion of comprehensiveness while increasing indispensability.

1. Own breaking news

The best way to remain relevant on a daily basis is to be the default site for local breaking news. This both creates daily habitual use and deepens trust.

But even on breaking news, being selective is crucial. You don’t have to knock out short stories about every fire or every car accident. But when significant news breaks that will impact your entire market, go all-in.

2. Go deep on investigative and enterprise

Nothing enhances the reputation of a local newsroom more than holding those with power accountable by digging up information beyond the grasp of the average citizen. Investigative and enterprise reporting must remain a core competency. These stories are crucial to local communities, and they also tend to be the ones that convince consumers they should support you.

3. Abandon the soft middle

The soft middle features the more routine chronicling of municipal institutions such as school boards, city agencies, etc. These can no longer be supported by most newsrooms on a daily basis. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have reporters covering education or transportation or local politics; it means giving up the routine and doing deeper reporting on these topics.

4. Curate to maintain some level of comprehensiveness

If you choose to abandon comprehensiveness but wish you didn’t have to, there is an indirect way to maintain it: curation. Most U.S. cities have niche sites that cover technology, education, entertainment, sports, business and more. If these are sources you know and trust, link to them. One of the key lessons of curation is you can be comprehensive without incurring the costs required to do so yourself.

For some reason, curation remains anathema to newsrooms, especially those used to owning their market. I’ve never been sure if it's an issue of pride, competition or just not understanding the power of curation. Let’s be clear: Curation isn’t just a kumbaya strategy where we’re just helping each other out (though that’s a nice fringe benefit). Curation is a way to make yourself the starting point for time-constrained local consumers. If a consumer has a choice to go to six different news sites in their city or to one that’s already tracked down and linked to the best work, they will choose the latter. Even if curated links go off-site, having that content available on your site still meets my definition of “comprehensive.”

5. Engage your readers in closing coverage gaps

Abandoning the illusion of comprehensiveness also opens up opportunities to spend resources on crucial new disciplines. One of those is engaging with readers. All newsrooms should, by now, have someone tasked with engagement. Because readers themselves can help fill coverage gaps. They can provide photos or videos in breaking news situations. They can provide expertise on the growing number of issues where journalists only have time to amass general knowledge. They can provide story ideas. They can, in some cases, provide supporting documents. We’re never going back to the newsrooms of 1990, so we need to empower citizens to help fill some gaps.

6. Obsess over audience data in order to make better decisions

Audience development is another underappreciated area in many legacy newsrooms. And I understand why: Until the digital revolution, journalism has been far more art than science. But analytics are allowing us to be scientific, and there’s no shame in combining art and science to chart a path forward. To be clear, being scientific doesn’t mean just throwing up big-screen TVs showing real-time traffic — that’s data without analysis. It means having dedicated people studying longer-term trends about the kinds of stories that are resonating, and with which audiences. It means studying incoming traffic sources, overall traffic trends, newsletter performance and so many other things.

None of these changes are easy, but they’ll become more and more necessary as — sadly, but inevitably — most newsrooms continue to shrink in the coming years.

I like to describe the past 40 years of newsroom staffing via the metaphor of a roulette table, with every number representing a reporting beat. In the salad days from 1970 to 2005, we had at least one chip on pretty much every number. But as journalism’s economic woes mounted, we feverishly began removing chips and stretching the remaining ones across multiple numbers, as in a slide or street bet.

Now, I believe the answer is to stack the chips on the numbers you absolutely have to win. Breaking news and investigative are two of those areas, and depending on the local market, every news organization will have a few other numbers upon which they want to stack chips.

By applying this “stack the chips” theory, you’ll end up throwing the majority of your journalistic resources at issues that matter most to readers — or, as I like to call them, your future benefactors. That alone should be reason enough to put a merciful end to the coverage combover.


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