Ah, the yin and yang of our readers.
In the past 48 hours, I’ve had an email from one reader who wants us to provide more D.C. political coverage and from another who thanks us for zooming in locally.
The politics fan asks: “Is it possible to have a column that reports on how our U.S. senators and local congressmen feel about issues before Congress and how they vote on bills/measures before Congress? How about providing more information on the bills before Congress? Our form of government depends on an informed electorate.”
This reader didn’t care much for our coverage of Sunday’s gorgeous, belated and power-outing snowfall.
“Four-fifths of the front page of The Roanoke Times today was taken up with pictures and articles about our snow fall yesterday; one-fifth was the article ‘Struggle looms over VA. budget.’ Which is the most important to our future?”
The other reader, meanwhile, responded favorably to a past post where I explained our focus on local news. “I enjoy your blend of coverage, particularly the outdoors columns – something that was, and is, distinctly lacking in most newspapers. Frequently, it’s the first thing I look for when I visit your online site.”
This reader knows he has options for wide-scope news — “I can, with the click of a mouse, summon forth Reuters’, the Daily Mail, the Times, the Wall Street Journal …” – but he comes back to roanoke.com for local. “I think your paper does an excellent job and thought you’d like to hear from someone not complaining for a change.”
These emails represent two camps, I suppose. But a guest in our newsroom yesterday reminded us they are not all that far apart — and that our future success may lie in continuing to please both.
That’s feedback we’ll take mightily to heart as we begin 2012 with the ambitious goal of upending roanoke.com and rebuilding it top to bottom. This time next year our site will look different — less cluttered; easier to find your way around, at the very least.
And though it may be inside baseball, it’s important to explain the back-end changes under way, too. The site will be fed by a new content management system and a newsroom re-trained to think about digital readers first (i.e. what is happening right NOW so I can read it and share it).
Sounds simple — “digital first” — but if you’ve ever worked on the efficient assembly line that is the print daily newsroom, one developed after years (125 years in our case) of nightly repetition under ridiculous deadline pressure … well, it’ll be a year.
It’ll be a year where we’ll be eager to hear what you think about where we’re headed. Beginning Monday we’re launching a blog — “RefreshRT” — whose sole purpose is to toss around our ideas, talk about what inspires us and ask you what you’d like to see.
But back to our newsroom guest — NYU professor Clay Shirky. In the circles where technology and journalism intertwine, he’s a very big deal. His startling 2009 essay, “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” is still circulated widely because it rightfully argues we should concentrate on saving journalism — not necessarily ink-on-dead-trees newspapers.
We were lucky enough to have Shirky here yesterday thanks to members of his family who moved to Roanoke 10 years ago. Turns out, he’s been reading us in print and online and took time out to generously offer us advice, yes, but really encouragement to experiment.
That politics reader who wrote me? Shirky would say she represents an unmet “opportunity for service.” She wants the paper to service her need to connect to politics and civic life in a participatory way.
I was struck by how he cited many examples of where The Roanoke Times excels at providing that kind of service. The Extra section, for example, repeatedly serves arts readers by not only telling them about an event but how and where to get tickets.
Shirky cited pets columnist Nona Nelson’s Extra story on “Toxin training” as being loaded with actionable info on keeping a curious dog out of trouble. These kinds of stories, he says, are valuable because they “help people plug into the grid of consumer life.”
But with politics and harder news, Shirky says, we grow quiet. We will write a detailed, crystal-clear, very important budget story “but it doesn’t tell you how to DO anything.”
As he said this, I recalled a reader who recently made one simple request: Include bill numbers more consistently in our stories on the General Assembly. Those digits were what separated her from passively reading about proposed legislation to actively expressing her thoughts to sponsors and opponents. She’d tried “calling Richmond,” she said, but got stuck in a maze of legislative aides who asked her for bill numbers. She clearly looked to us to provide that connection.
Before the meeting, Shirky said he noticed roanoke.com does not appear to do much with the national or international content we buy from wire services such as The Associated Press. It’s actually there on our home page, halfway down with a nearly invisible link to a continuous feed of the latest from AP. Should we do more with this news? From time to time, we’ll hear such a complaint. Are we being too “homer?”
Shirky: No, go local, all local. When he looks at roanoke.com and our local emphasis, he sees a good thing. Our home page says, “We are showing you the work that we do, not the work that we buy” from the wire services.
Among other things, “digital first” means being committed to local news, Shirky says, “to this stuff that we do better than anyone else.”
Shirky’s known for dissecting the economics of the newspaper business with withering accuracy, but he steered mostly clear of that yesterday. “The precipitate decline ( in print ad revenue) is over,” he said. We’re now in for a long decline that has to be managed as “mechanical hospice care.”
Yet talking further about the subject was “boring and depressing,” he said, and instead turned the talk enthusiastically to the future of journalism. Conduct a hundred small experiments. Rethink your relationship with readers. Look for the stories in data. Collaborate with new newsgathering partners.
The decline in print ad revenue — “that’s the bad news,” he said. “The good news? You’ve got nothing to lose.”
(Reporter Beth Macy offers her take on Shirky’s visit on her blog.)