Local newspapers and trash-sniffing bears: How audience-centric journalism works

Whenever I travel, I tend to grab a copy of the local newspaper to see what matters to the readers of that area. In the larger metro areas, you get a lot of the same types of things: crime, governmental wrangling, national news, international news and big-time sports. Over the years, I also noted a trend of unfortunate similarities among regional papers because most of them are now owned by a single company, Gannett. Thus, you get a lot of “USA TODAY NETWORK – (FILL IN YOUR STATE HERE)” bylines on stories that have a general local feel, but lack a clear connection to the specific town or city in which the paper lives.

Still, a number of true “local” papers exist in various parts of various states, including mine. When my in-laws used to live in a place called Beecher, Wisconsin, we would often visit them and a stop at a gas station along the way gave me a chance to sample the local press. The one vivid memory I had was during a spring trip “up north” at a time of heightened international tensions, some sort of congressional shriek-fest and a lot of worries about an upcoming state election.

The front page story on the local paper? Six tips on how to keep bears emerging from hibernation from getting into your trash.

I couldn’t find a single story on Obama or Europe or even our state legislature on the front page. It was about the local fishing forecast, a festival at a local church and, of course, the bear thing. The publishers of those papers were local folks, writing about local things that mattered to local citizens.

Sure, things like peace in the Middle East and who was likely to do what in the U.S. Senate mattered to those people in a broader sense, but the local press figured (probably rightly) that people who read their paper would have gotten that stuff from CNN or FOX or some big-news website. They didn’t have a reason to rehash that stuff. On the other hand, it was a pretty safe bet that Anderson Cooper or Sean Hannity wasn’t going to run a series on how deer were in heat and thus leading to more car accidents on Highway 141 (a real concern around these parts).

Here are a couple local papers I grabbed on the way to work:

Newspapers

Top story: How local bridge work isn’t going to hurt the fishing in the area. Other stories? The building of a new assisted living community, how the local schools are doing in state tests/budgets, local zoning laws and an upcoming Oktoberfest walk/run.

I’m not going to endorse or admonish the writing quality or design approach on either of these publications, but I will tell you that I’d bet a dollar to a dime that the content matters to the area readers. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I live in Omro, a city of about 3,300, and my wife desperately wants to raise chickens in our yard for reasons past my understanding. She’s always keeping an eye on zoning changes that might allow for this. I pray that this never happens.)

The big take away here is that you need to know what matters most to your readers and then provide content that meets the needs of those readers. It might seem “unimportant” to cover things like this, especially when other people you know are writing about political unrest in Russia or North Korea’s missile program.

However, if you ever walked out to your trash and saw a 300-pound black bear pawing through your garbage, you’d probably want to know how to keep that from happening again.

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