Sunday, November 11, 2012

How to challenge the Joplin Globe

In the first part of my two-part examination of the Joplin Globe, I focused on the problems with the newspaper with a partial recounting of the issues that face the newspaper as it struggles with remaining relevant in 2011.

As I noted yesterday, the second part will detail how the Joplin Globe can be challenged.

First, a bit of history:

Almost two decades ago, Carthage Press Publisher Jim Farley told me that a well-planned weekly could compete successfully with the Joplin Globe and asked me to come up with a plan. The plan met his approval but he was never able to convince the people at American Publishing to give it the green light.

The plan was later used in a short-lived experiment called the Lamar Press. The news part of the plan was successful from the start, but the business plan fell short, relying on a misguided belief that Carthage businesses would pay for extra exposure to potential customers 25 miles north. We spent only two or three hours a week trying to sell ads in the target community.

The newspaper went out of business after 49 weeks.

After Jim Farley had long since departed the local newspaper scene, the descendant of American Publishing, GateHouse Media, went ahead with a plan to challenge the Globe, starting the Joplin Daily. The basic idea was a good one- a weekly newspaper designed to steer readers toward the Joplin Daily website. It could have worked, but GateHouse officials never had full-time advertising salespeople, cut promotion after the beginning blitz, quickly steered its free newspapers into the wealthier parts of the community, and saddled the news staff with the same difficult-to-maneuver websites that plague the rest of GateHouse.

The GateHouse people also stressed efforts to convince advertisers to sign long-term contracts for display advertising and came up with one promotion after another designed to promote the company’s bottom line, but which did nothing for the advertisers.

Daily Editor John Hacker gave it his best shot, but the cards were stacked against him from the beginning. GateHouse forced him into copying some of the mistakes that were being made by the Globe:

-The Daily quite rightly emphasized education, but just like the Globe, it spent just as much of its time concentrating on Joplin’s private schools as the Joplin R-8 Schools. The private schools should have been covered, but not to the extent of the public schools for two reasons- a large majority of the city’s children attend public schools and the schools are run with taxpayer money.

-The newspaper had no investigative bent and except for Hacker really did not have anyone who could do that type of reporting. If the Daily had become a watchdog for taxpayers and shown an ability to dig into stories, it might have had a longer shelf life.

-The Daily made poor choices in its columnists. Again, making the same mistake the Joplin Globe does, the challenger opted to find people who represent certain organizations and constituencies instead of looking for the best writers it could find. (Complete disclosure: I was one of the columnists who was with the Daily for its inaugural issue. After that, John Hacker was told that he could not use me every week so they could get different voices into the newspaper and soon, it was all about connections rather than who could actually attract readers. I opted not to remain involved with the Daily.)

-Except for more positive news stories and more school coverage there was little to distinguish the Daily from the Globe and without a difference in approach, there was no need for the Daily to exist.

So anyone who wants to mount a challenge to the Globe needs to take the following problems into consideration:

-You have to be able to convince advertisers that you are going to be able to reach a certain number of readers and that they are not going to be throwing away their money. It does not matter if they are dissatisfied with their dealings with the Globe, they will stay with it, because it is still the top print medium and it is a certainty that it will still be here next year and for years to come. The paradoxical problem that newspaper startups have is that advertisers root for them to succeed so they can have an alternative, but they want to wait until they see if you are going to succeed before they invest any money.

-You have to find a way to compete with the Globe with just a skeleton staff. No one is going to get startup money to fund a newspaper with as many reporters, designers, editors, salespeople, clerks, etc. as the Globe. The startup has to be lean and mean.

-You have to be able to hit the ground running with five or six straight issues that command attention. If someone is going to challenge the Globe, it is a mortal sin to be boring- since the Globe has already cornered the market on that, why should the community support two such publications? And again, you have to maintain the interest with an undermanned staff.

So finally, with that long buildup out of the way, this is what a challenger to the Joplin Globe needs to do:

1.     Hire an editor with a vision, one who is not locked into the idea of what a newspaper used to be, and one who can express his or her vision in writing. This person needs to be someone who can inspire people to give a new publication a chance and who can convince people to develop a loyalty to the startup.
2.     Hire reporters who can write or writers who can report (and there is a difference). You won’t be able to hire many, but you need the flexibility.
3.     Decide which stories and areas you want to focus on and flood those areas. Offer more information than the Globe provides on those particular stories. Cover every angle; convince people to write diaries or at least first person stories.
4.     Instead of spending a great amount of time doing long stand-alone feature stories that take time you do not have, do fast food features. When it is possible, they should be connected with the stories you are covering. At the Carthage Press, I always did brief interviews with each of the top 10 seniors during graduation time. In sports coverage, I always did short Sports Talk profiles of the athletes involved.
5.     Find the best writers you can find to write columns for you. The Globe failed miserably with its attempts to find bloggers because it tried to hire people to fit constituencies rather than looking for people who could write and develop a following. With the Lamar Press, we had columnists who wrote about varied subjects including Nancy Hughes, Kim Earl, Cait Purinton, Katie Gilkey, food colunist Susan Davis, Marvin VanGilder, and me. On the two or three weeks that we did not have some major story to emphasize, people knew they would get their money’s worth from the columns.
6.     Broaden your sports focus. Yes, Missouri Southern State University is the big sports name in the city of Joplin, but it should not receive the biggest emphasis in a startup. Find a way to thoroughly cover everything from pee-wee football through high school sports. This should not be done with regular reporters, though an occasional appearance at some of those events would be an excellent idea. Use the power of the internet. Have the sports editor spend some time lining up parents and anyone else who might be interested to send in accounts of game with an emphasis on names, names, names. Many things have changed about journalism over the years, but not that. You can also augment coverage by using high school and college students as stringers or have someone working the phones on nights when games are taking place. If you land the parents of third and fourth graders as readers, they will stay with you forever. Most newspapers wait until high school to offer any type of extensive coverage. By that time, many of the children are no longer involved in sports and the opportunity to gain readers has been wasted.
7.     Treat Joplin like the small town it is instead of trying to pretend that you are putting out a metropolitan paper as the Globe does. Cover the high school homecomings (Joplin, McAuley, College Heights, Thomas Jefferson) and treat them like they are major events, because to a lot of people they are.  The Globe, by acting like the game is the only thing of importance that is going on, is missing the boat. Extra coverage, extra photos, mean extra sales. I would go overboard on every Joplin High School graduation, and not just when it is the first one after a tornado or when the president of the United States happens to stop by. High school graduations are big events in a community. Always run the text of the speeches from the valedictorian and salutatorian (and anyone else who speaks). Run the names of every graduate.
8.     Act as the watchdog for the taxpayers. Search public documents, go over court dockets, and update readers on every stage of court cases. Follow the money.
9.     Cover public meetings thoroughly. Many of the most important items are the ones that receive just one paragraph or no mention at all in the Globe. Tell exactly how these items affect the taxpayers.
10. Cover the media. Treat the Joplin Globe, the television and radio stations, blogs, etc. as a beat. People are interested and you can draw attention to your publication with some playful tweaking of the lumbering Globe.
11. Documents, documents, documents- Put anything that might interest your readers on your website.
12. Link to everything Joplin. Make your website the one-stop shopping place for Joplin information. That includes links to the Globe, the radio and television stations, city government, Jasper County government, police department, fire department, plus any stories from the Kansas City Star, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, or even national news outlets that relate to Joplin. Embrace linking; it is the key to growth.
13. Set up a YouTube channel and offer raw video from news events and perhaps even complete coverage of some.
14. Engage the readers with Facebook and Twitter updates. These should be used not only to promote, but also to converse with readers. Develop a relationship with the public.
15. Publish e-books and perhaps paperback or hardback books- yearbooks, coverage of major events, books on highly successful local sports teams, etc. These publications should offer an additional revenue stream.
16. Promote, promote, promote- Keep your publication in the public’s name through every means you can, whether it be through Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, or by personal appearances, or booths at public events.
17. Offer extensive coverage of the artistic scene in Joplin. And this should be done without the type of pretentious reviews that the Globe has. Open the reviews to the public and place them on the website and/or in the newspaper. Artistic coverage should cover everything from Joplin Little Theater, Stained Glass Theatre, and Missouri Southern productions to high school plays and musical programs. This coverage can also include the type of fast food features I referred to earlier.
18. Run news briefs on anything and everything Joplin.
19. Extensive records coverage- everything from court cases to new city utility hookups.
20. Run complete obituaries, engagements, weddings, and anniversaries and DO NOT CHARGE FOR THEM, THEY’RE NEWS!
21. Hire ad salespeople who actually visit businesses in person and develop a relationship with the people at those businesses.
22. Forget about “progress issues,” niche magazines, and salute pages to Labor Day and Arbor Day. If you have a special issue or promotion, let it develop naturally out of your news coverage, instead of being created artificially to meet the needs of some constituency.
23. Treat the newspaper like a small town weekly updated to the 21st Century. Embrace technology.
24. Develop as many streams of revenue as possible. I have mentioned e-books and print books. You also need to have display advertising, both in the publication and on the web, subscription revenue, Amazon ads, Google Ads, photo sales, and straight-up donations.

Anyone who mounts a startup against the Joplin Globe is facing a steep uphill climb, no doubt about it. If it is treated like a small-town newspaper, it has a fighting chance. That is the one kind of newspaper that has not seen a steep decline over the past several years. Many small town newspapers are thriving. Expand your idea of what news is beyond the narrow constraints of the Joplin Globe and you have a fighting chance.

Again, I await your comments.

1 comment:

Rick Nichols said...

I won't say that successfully challenging The Globe is impossible, but it's improbable. Msybe Rex Sinquefield, he of deep pockets, would like to give it a try. Anyway, The Globe, like the KC Star, certainly has room for improvement, but I'm certainly not going to get my hopes up as long as the paper is owned by a corporate entity. I agree with many of the things you're saying, Randy, and if I had all the money in the world, implementing some of these ideas would be a very tempting proposition. The Globe, like the KC Star, is hampered by an ever-shrinking news hole, so it's imperative that good judgement is used in determining what stories do (or don't) eventually see the light of day. In a perfect world, constituencies wouldn't be a consideration, but today's harsh economic realities are essentially dictating much in the way of what a paper covers (or doesn't cover). I thought we put out a pretty good paper in Sarcoxie back in the '70s, but the advertising support was not there to sustain the product. Working for nothing gets old pretty fast if you know what I mean. The general consensus is, of course, that the small-town weekly papers are more likely to survive in the long run than the big-city dailies, and I would put The Globe in the latter category. In an attempt to enhance the revenue side of things, the KC Star is getting ready to roll out a Pay Wall on December 5. It will be interesting to see what the response to this move is. I assume that The Globe has either already implemented a Pay Wall or is considering same. Finding the right balance between supplying desired content and protecting desired content is no easy task, that's for sure. I think there'll always be a place for the newspaper in a democratic society, it's just difficult at this point to determine what form the product will take in the foreseeable future. We all want the truth and/or accurate information, but are we truly willing to pay for it?