The Role of Print in a Disaster? Be Relevant
Plane crash unearths real value of a hometown newspaper.
It’s the Topic of the decade. As print flutters between being obsolete
or merely deeply wounded, it struggles for relevancy in a world gone
hyper-electronic. The days of delivering the news to a waking world at 6:30
or to greet weary workers as they arrive home are long gone. The Web and mobile
phones changed all that a decade ago, but an obdurate industry and no less than
four wallet-breaking "technical advancements" (cold-type, color
printing, pagination and the Web) in the past four decades, has pushed the
industry to its knees.
A Google search on "future of newspapers" yielded 99,500 results. An
even more pessimistic query of "end of newspapers" yielded 26,200.
And if we think it is tough today, what will it be like a decade from now, when
our children, tethered to iPods and XBox Connects, do not have memory of
newspaper’s days as "Messenger-in-Chief"?
It was with this in mind that I approached my son’s middle school English
teacher to pass out a questionnaire I had created with his 6th grade students.
He graciously agreed. The questionnaire had its failings and was in no-way
scientific, although it did provide a hint at what tomorrow’s consumer of news
I must admit that I went into this with a presumption that most kids would not
even have seen a newspaper, let alone read one. I was wrong. Just 8
percent said that they had never read one, and another 8 percent said that they
had read one once. Still 59 percent read a newspaper once in a while and 22
percent said they read them all the time.
I also asked kids to provide the definition of a newspaper. The answers ranged
from the mostly obvious ("like a big book with lots of articles in it")
to the truly insightful ("a carrier for advertising") to,
even, this: "a primitive form of t.v. that has channels that differ
from each region."
But I wonder if, after the last couple weeks, their perception of newspapers
changed. You see, the middle school is Clarence Middle, the same Clarence where Flight 3407 plummeted into a house killing 50—five
from our tiny hamlet. Clarence is a rural outpost of Buffalo, and while our
population has grown considerably in the last decade, it really is quite
removed both geographically (20 miles) and socio-economically from the rest of
the area. So despite having moved here from the New York/New Jersey region over
four years ago, I still didn’t embrace the Buffalo News as my hometown paper.
My consumption of the News consisted of front page, op-ed and sports,
with about a once-a-week check of the "Northern Suburbs" to see if
the stringer for our area had filed anything
That changed on February 12, when
practically the entire 180-member News staff suddenly found
Clarence, and I found my local paper. The coverage of the event was thorough—and
superb. The reporters not only covered the tragedy, but they captured the
psyche of the residents here—that we are essentially a commuter town. Many of
my neighbors, like my husband and me, travel by air on a weekly basis. We all
held our collective breaths as we waited for identification of victims, with
plaintive texts to friends-"where are you?" or in some cases just,
The reporters did what they were supposed to. They told the stories of the
victims in moving detail, and began to unearth a controversy that maybe flying
the popular regional propjets into icy (shocking) Buffalo is not so safe after
all. The News even updated the front page last week to let residents
know that a counter-demonstration was coalescing at the
crossroads of the accident site—to drown out some imbeciles hellbent on using
the memorial services to promote their poisonous agenda.
TV Critic Jeff Simon was right when he said that the online News finally had come of age.
He also pointed out the pitfalls of trying to be newsbreaking and accurate—early
reports said it was a U.S. Air flight, not a Continental one, while other media
were reporting it was a twin-seater versus a commercial airliner. Accuracy,
speed and thoroughness are sometimes at odds. And not to negate the
contribution of the three local broadcast stations—they did a fine job on the
breaking news—but they couldn’t sustain the in-depth coverage for the ensuing
days when we, like addicts, hungered for more.
Juxtaposed to this essential coverage was the ad-hoc city that sprung up at the
local library, when more than 40 satellite news teams from all over
descended. It was silliness watching news team after news team in their
makeshift outdoor studios: lights, anchor and camera crew, all reporting the
same thing-a mile from the scene. As I was asked repeatedly, "where can we
go buy sandwiches," I realized how irrelevant they were. They weren’t
local, they didn’t understand the area, nor did they comprehend the concern of
the residents, nor the fears of kids—like my 10-year old, who immediately
grasped: "this could have been our house. It could have been you or
And while the industry and executives go neurotic over whether or not
newspapers are still relevant, the answer is in their question. If they have to
ask, then they are not. Choosing to load up editorial with wire copy, to report
the same stuff as everyone else, is no different than the 40 news crews that
took a camera shot of an empty road. Gutting a newsroom is an insane and clear
path to irrelevancy. Your editorial is not only the hook into your community—they
are your marketers. They are the public faces that remind us to pick up
Clearly, you can’t build a business plan around having a tragedy in your
community—but the lesson should be that people will read what is impactful to
them. When you have trained me not to read the local news more than once a week—because
you can’t update more than that—you start falling into that bucket of
And if you really don’t know what
makes your newspaper relevant, here’s a newsflash: ask a 6th grader.