Dave Moller: Breathing life back into newspapers
Old newspaper people like me have tales about writing breathtakingly important stories, only to be met with a collective yawn from the populace.
I suspect it was karma-induced payback for exercising our massive egos all those decades, but I also think it was an indication that our government-intensive coverage of years gone by missed the mark.
We’d get so jacked up writing a three-part series on sewage that we missed the other stories people needed on how the hospital was handling a national staph infection breakout, or that a third coffee place was going in downtown.
About 10 years ago, the newspaper industry began to realize the sewage is ultimately dull and important at once. It was something we needed to cover, but we didn’t need to ballyhoo it over one-half week’s worth of front pages.
So in the summer of 2002 – coincidentally six months after my arrival here – The Union began to embrace this new coverage philosophy when we redesigned the look of the newspaper, and frankly, it was time. We figured a change in looks should be bolstered by an attitude change about what we do and how we do it.
So we began instituting that change, and believe me, it wasn’t immediate or easy. Just like anybody else, journalists change slowly and sometimes reluctantly.
It was easier when the formula called for covering the meeting and writing up what everybody said. We still do that, but now we probe further.
When the mayor says it’s all copacetic, we ask why and what a whole lot of other people think about it.
What did the county supervisors mean when they said confidence was slipping for a certain department? How will it affect the readers’ pocketbooks, lives or their kids?
We also try to find real local examples of things when we write about national issues. As we’ve found, readers enjoy a story more about a woman from Nevada County who survived West Nile Disease than they do a general warning piece from the Associated Press.
The Union has also embraced Internet news reporting in a huge way with our Web site, TheUnion.com.
It’s a massive improvement for more news reporting that has enabled us to finally be competitive on a timely basis with radio and TV.
I’ll never forget the day I woke up in 2002 and switched on the TV to find downtown Nevada City threatened by the Friar Tuck’s Restaurant fire. It took about five seconds for me to realize we had to tell the story right away on our Web site instead of waiting 24 hours to put a paper on the street.
What astounded me after I hurried into work was to find out our readers obviously felt the same way. They had already delivered about 50 photos of the fire to our newsroom and were asking if we wanted more.
Within 45 minutes we had about 25 photos up and a story that was updated all day long. Welcome to the future, I thought; the readers want this.
Since that day, we have progressively increased our Web site coverage to the point where we now place things on it almost around the clock. Reporters found out it really wasn’t much extra work, because short Web stories written during the day are easily turned into longer stories for the next morning’s paper.
The Web site is also an apparent answer to a problem that had been driving the newspaper industry crazy for years, which was, “How do we attract young readers?”
Our kids were growing up with TV and computers and seemingly had no interest in the paper. But they do read news online, and we now fully understand that.
By now, The Union is really more of an information agency than an old dinosaur broadsheet newspaper. The Web site and newspaper feed each other and spread out our audience.
We’ve even introduced a Sunday tabloid, a different kind of a read with more fun stuff than sewage stories, and so far, it is hugely successful.
To be honest, the philosophical change and the TheUnion.com Web site success have me excited about reporting again, as I was when they handed me my first pocket-sized notebook at a little weekly in the Ozarks 32 years ago.
A decade ago I wondered if I would even have a job in newspapers because many were dying. I realized the downtrend mostly involved major dailies in large markets and that community newspapers like ours were, and continue to be, the backbone of the industry, but it was still unsettling.
So you’ll have to excuse me if I seem a little giddy about all this, but any time your career gets rejuvenated, there’s cause for celebration.
I also know our philosophical shift and the Web site have impressed our readers. When I first came to town and worked at The Union booth at the Home and Garden Show, about five people bitterly complained to me about the paper’s lack of coverage or how irrelevant it was to their lives.
Now when I work the show, there is an occasional rough comment, but the kudos and back slaps abound compared to the past. For me and The Union, change has been good.
To contact Senior Staff Writer Dave Moller, e-mail davem@the union.com or call 477-4237.
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