(Hint: it has nothing to do with money)
People like to complain about pledge drives on NPR and PBS, but I was recently talking with a journalist at a local public radio station who said “One of the problems facing newspapers is that they don’t have fund drives.”
She went on to explain that, while fund drives are an absolute financial necessity for NPR and PBS, the donations they receive are only part of the benefits. “Two or thee times a year we get to spend a couple hours a day telling our community how important they are to us, and reminding them how important we are to them,” she said.
Newspapers have never had to focus on building community in this way, and have never spent much time talking with their readers about the role they play in each other’s lives. Newspapers have focused more on serving advertisers, and selling subscriptions, than building affinity and engagement with local people. Newspapers – some newspapers – are just now beginning to consider these issues. However, too often newspapers confuse real community engagement with posting a Facebook page and starting a Twitter account. Papers need to find new ways to participate and leverage new digital technologies, but this is a separate issue from building community support.
Indeed, the most common responses to the struggles facing the news industry highlight how disconnected news executives are from the communities they serve. At a time when newspapers need local communities more than ever, they are responding by putting up paywalls and threatening to sue the people who like their product enough that they want to share it with others. Newspaper companies’ focus on new payment models and threatening copyright lawsuits amount to an attack on just the people they ought to be organizing.
Many of these new nonprofit journalism websites get it. They have focused on outreach into the local community, they talk about giving people a stake in the news, and discuss with people what they need from the news. In doing so, they are talking about the role of journalism at large, and reminding people of why they should support this work.
Newspapers could learn a lot from these examples.