Monday, May 30, 2016

In praise of homegrown news (the survival of weekly papers)

My first full-time reporting job came from a small weekly paper on Long Island. Called Suffolk Life, the paper served as the launch pad for the careers of a number of superb journalists and scholars. And me.

No one becomes wealthy working at a weekly paper. Because he couldn't pay me very much, the publisher, the late great Dave Wilmott, Jr., allowed me to gas up from the same ancient Esso-esque pump that filled his delivery trucks.

A few years later, as a public relations practitioner, I continued my appreciation of weeklies, especially when promoting lifestyle products and how to use them. My rationale: place a story in a daily paper, and that edition will likely be discarded when the next day's paper arrives. Place the same story in a weekly, and that paper lives in readers' homes for a full week before its replacement shows up. I get seven chances to grab your attention, not just one.

Local weeklies. (c) DKassnoff, 2016.
Today, Suffolk Life is out of business. And many weekly papers, consolidated into chains that have shareholders to answer to, are little more than glorified "shopping guides" or pennysavers. (One PR placement service still insists on calling them "suburban weeklies," even if they're nothing more than classified ads and bake sales.)

In my community, a chain that owns eight weeklies and one daily did away with all the weeklies' reporters, subsisting on columns provided by local elected officials, submitted photos taken by doting parents with dubious photographic skills, and news releases from local colleges. Another local weekly runs little more than copy provided by religion-based news services, except for a rare announcement of a new clergy appointment. And let's not even discuss the dubious quality of their online versions, where concepts such as responsive design have yet to take hold.

So, are weeklies still a viable PR channel?

Yes -- as  as long as there's a modest amount of locally written editorial content. Without an article or two written by local reporters, there's little motivation for readers to read a newspaper. The locally written articles provide a cloak of authenticity that extends to stories generated by legislators and PR operatives like me.

That's why I like the Hometown News of Honeoye, N.Y. True, it publishes the generic "Supervisor's Report" from town hall and news releases from the governor's office and the local state senator. But its editorial content also includes stories penned by local writers. I may not care as they do about Baltimore orioles (the birds, not the ballplayers), local crafters, or bear sightings -- but I appreciate that neighbors in the vicinity of Honeoye Lake feel compelled to write about them.

And, I hope, other readers care enough to read those stories, too.