Local News as a State of Mind

Convener: Tom Warhover, Columbia Missourian/University of Missouri

Note taker:  Cole Campbell

Dramatis Personae

  • Tom Warhover, Columbia Missourian/University of Missouri
  • Cole Campbell, Kettering Foundation
  • Jim Lee, Carroll County Times (Maryland)
  • Frank Fellone, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
  • Chris Peck, Spokane Spokesman-Review (Washington)
  • Rick Rassmann, The Herald (Rock Hill, S.C.)


Our conversation is replicated below in sequence but also in paraphrase.

Tom Warhover: The premise: Attack coverage has taken a story with international, national and local dimensions and treated it as a whole, unified story — not one divided by geography. Meanwhile, the Spokesman-Review publishes a page, “Connections,” that ties news from around the world to Spokane and its region. The Colombia Missourian online site has readers from all over the nation, who maintain ties to Columbia or the University of Missouri. Can we find ways to cover local news as a state of mind rather than a state of geography alone? Is a story local because of its local accessibility? Local impact? Local ties/participants?

Chris Peck: If we don’t use geography, what is the organizing principle?  Issues?

Rick Rassmann: We often “localize” by losing a few paragraphs deep in a sea of type in a wire story. Jim Lee: “Localization” is often slapdash.

Chris Peck: Maybe you could appoint a person whose job it is to identify the overlay (global for a local story; local for a global one) to unfolding news. What preparation or training would give this person the worldly wisdom or perspective to do such a job?

Tom Warhover: Is there a template we could create to get beyond the two “people in the street” interviews.

Rich: Isn’t this what a good line editor would do anyway?

Cole Campbell: We cited exceptional journalism, appointing a specialist, devising a template, and “just good journalism” — can’t we get a more inventive conversation going?

Chris: We need to stair-step new ideas up as we keep getting the paper out. A person with a new job can add spice to the sausage as we produce it.

Rich: You have to know your readers to get past “spinach” journalism that you should consume because it’s good for you.

Chris: Editors and newspapers got way out of synch with where readers live. But now that we’re in synch, editors and newspapers have to help readers see beyond the horizon. It’s a matter of quality of thought — where do I get that?

Tom: We may need to do the same story in four forms to get all the textures.

Jim: We can’t force-feed readers news coverage. They don’t care about a lot of topics in the news.

Cole: They don’t care about the WAY we cover a lot of topics in the news.

Chris: Can we introduce topics in a subtler way? Will we overdose on Afghanistan and then abruptly drop it? To change radically will require some crash-and-burn experiences.

Cole: We’re already crashing and burning in the eyes of many readers and former readers. How do we keep our individual newsrooms from crashing and burning?

Chris: Set aside Sept. 11 for a moment. What might we do differently with beat reporters?

Cole: Take cops and court coverage. Why not make it about the universal human drama and the social tensions underlying it — family protection, equal justice, etc. — that inform all the prime-time television dramatic programming built around the civil and criminal justice systems? Why limit so much of our coverage to dull recitations of “facts” and “events” down at the cop shop or the courthouse? Why can’t all our cops and courts coverage capture the universal elements in the particular crimes and cases we cover?

Chris: How do we make such changes palatable to newsroom cultures? 1. Start with one rewrite person to pick two or three stories of the day and look for the larger cultural context, the global/local angles. 2. Give people templates that help them grasp the deeper dimensions of news.

Frank Fellone: The editor needs to communicate every day the newspaper’s virtues, not just its values.

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