A resolution for 2013: Critically rethink news beats

A good 2013 resolution for editors in newspaper newsrooms is: Critically rethink beats.

There is a great discussion of why beats need rethinking that began over the weekend.

Former Greensboro News & Record editor John Robinson sparked it in a blog post titled “Fix Local News Or Die*.” He writes:

Here’s the problem: Either local news isn’t that interesting or newspapers are writing about it the way they always have and THAT’S not all that interesting. Or both.

Robinson says how newspapers cover local news is often boring. designed to fill a hole, not a need.

Steve Buttry, Digital First Media’s Digital Transformation Editor, started discussing the post on Twitter and later combined some of that conversation with some thoughts of his own on how news beats might be changed.

A couple of his suggestions:

Maybe you shift the attention of an education beat away from what school boards and superintendents do and more toward what teachers and students do in the classrooms. Maybe you shift the attention of a health-care beat away from hospitals and health-care organizations and more toward doctors and patients and families.

He also brought up a pet beat, a life struggles beat, a finding work beat.

There’s even a poll.

Josh Stearns pointed to an Oct. 4 post he did on the PBS MediaShift site called “Should We Blow Up Reporters’ Beats in the Digital Age?

One idea Stearns brings up is “what if beats had time limits or an expiration date?”

Guy Lucas at his Newsroom with a View blog resurfaced this idea:

The success of any attempt to change or “fix” local news is ultimately dependent on publishers and the executives who supervise them agreeing with the need to restructure the newsroom pay scale and to end, where they exist, any mandates that the front page absolutely has to be all-local. Yes, I mean better pay, but I also mean fewer people in the newsroom because the revenue isn’t there to raise pay and keep the staff the same size, which is the reason publishers who want all-local front pages have to give that up in the name of getting better reporting. That also means more pressure on editors to ensure their staff follows through – more-engaged editors, more-engaged reporters.

Robinson tweeted that he planned a follow up that offered some ways to address local news.

Mads-Jakob Vad Kristensen, digital director of Berlingske Media in Denmark, observes: “With paywalls being erected around local content, 2013 will be the true test of whether the local audience puts the same value against the local content as the producers of same do.”

That observation is spot on because local news coverage as it is now practiced won’t be greatly missed despite the hand-wringing to the contrary. “Lively,” “readable,” “engaging,” “insightful” are not words you will hear describing most newspapers, much less “must read.”

If newspapers are not creating “must read” content, all the tablets in China and all the publishers great paywalls will not reverse their fortunes.

Skimmed over in the debate is what is “local news?” Is it merely geography?

Happy 2013. It’s off to a good start on its eve.