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Brian Hamilton: Feeling the love from our community

Brian Hamilton
The Union photo/John Hart
John R. Hart | The Union

I don’t know if it’s the warm spring-like temperatures, the fact that Valentine’s Day is right around the corner or the recent results from The Union’s readership survey, but I’m definitely feeling the love.

OK, maybe love might be a bit too strong.

But the results are in. And the survey says, “You like us! You really, really like us!”

First, let me thank each and every member of our community who took the time — admittedly, a substantial amount of time — to participate in our survey conducted late last year.

The 2015 survey marked the third time since 2011 that The Union has conducted such a community review and the participation numbers continue to grow. In 2011, we had a total of 214 people participate in an online survey. In 2013, we offered both print and online surveys, which totaled 676 participants.

This time around, in an online-only format, there were a total of 1,403 surveys completed.

That kind of participation is a great example of our community’s engagement, and the feedback offered by those who shared their thoughts is highly valuable to us as we continue our efforts to better serve those who live, work and play here. In the weeks ahead, we’ll share what we’ve learned through the responses to various questions in the survey, including on which topics we should focus our coverage, how you rate our customer service and how you receive news and information published by The Union.

But first, I’d like to share the results from my own personal favorite question we’ve asked in recent years:

“If The Union could change one thing in the next 12 months, what should it change?”

Even though this is an open-ended question, requiring additional time in already lengthy survey, 829 community members took the time to share their thoughts. And, because they were so kind to do so, I took the time to read each and every one of their responses.

And, would you believe, among all the ideas shared as to what The Union should change in the next year, the most-often repeated answer was “nothing?” (In case you wouldn’t believe it, see this story online to review a list of all responses.) Nearly 100 people offered various iterations of “I love The Union … no complaints”; “I think The Union is a well-rounded small town paper – I’m happy”; and “Just keep up the good work. This is a good community newspaper.”

Aw, shucks.

Certainly it’s great to read such positive feedback on the work we do to serve the community, but the responses weren’t all red roses and a box of chocolates:

“Fire the left-wing editor that won’t print anything from the right.”

Ouch! Most times there is more to be learned from the “tough love” offered to us in our surveys. And if you were to group all the suggested areas of improvement, they certainly outnumber the readers who saw no need for changes. So there’s clearly still work to be done.

The second-most repeated response, on the one thing The Union should change, was “better proofreading” to rid the paper of typos. This suggestion, which was shared 43 times, certainly hits home. There is no one who feels worse than yours truly when an error makes its way to print or the web, like a quick kick to the stomach with each instance. We are human. We will make mistakes. And, as a colleague once told me, we’ll also deliver them to your house each day by 6 a.m. Still, there is obviously room for improvement and we will continue working to that end.

Other often-cited suggestions included moving arrests off the front page of the paper and replacing them with more positive stories. We do recognize the great deal of “good news” occurring in our community, and they’re often published as “center piece” packages on page one. But it is also important to report on the crimes that plague our neighborhoods, as they do make an impact on not only the victims but also the community at large. Striking the balance between reporting “negative” and “positive” news is a challenge, but one worth considering when we’re planning our coverage.

Another challenge for a community newspaper is dedicating the resources to the kind of investigative reporting that many survey participants requested, and the kind of work our professional team of journalists want to research and write. And while we dedicate our newsroom staff — 11 members strong, including myself — to focus on producing locally relevant content, it’s another challenge to afford page space to provide more regional, state, national and global news that many of you would like to read more of in The Union. Adding pages, including the additional opinion page that some seek, to the print edition isn’t free. And employing a newsroom to deliver local news and information to your home, your laptop or smartphone isn’t free either.

Some suggested the news on our website should be free, or that our subscription costs should be lowered. And, actually, everyone can currently read up to 10 stories each month without being charged. But, yes, after accessing that amount of content, we do seek support in the form of a subscription — helping to fund the creation of the very content you’re consuming.

Finally, among the nearly 900 suggestions shared what The Union should change, many were focused on the “diatribes” published on our opinion pages, with both ends of the political spectrum taking us to task for publishing too much from “the other side.”

We firmly believe that our op-ed page should reflect the “Ideas & Opinions” of our community. Although we sometimes must decline publication, we do our very best to say “yes” to those seeking to share their voices. If you feel The Union’s opinion page does not reflect your point of view, there is one good way to make sure it does: write a letter to the editor or an “Other Voices” for us to publish.

Because regardless of what some might say, our own opinions won’t preclude others from being shared in The Union.

“Decide. Be liberal or conservative. As it is, trying to be all things to all people, you just frustrate all. Be the voice of one or the other and be effective in it,” one person suggested. “And get a real editor!”

Ouch! Thanks again to all who participated.

We look forward to sharing more of what we learned in coming weeks, as painful as the tough love might be.

Brian Hamilton is editor of The Union. Contact him at bhamilton@theunion.com or 530-477-4249.

Check out all survey comments below:

If The Union could change one thing in the next 12 months …


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