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Column: What I learned from readers on my ‘Valley News’ road show

  • Maggie Cassidy. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Editor
Friday, September 13, 2019

When I took over as editor at the start of the year, I wanted to connect with Valley News readers (and non-readers) to learn about the role local news plays in their lives and to answer questions about our daily process here at our West Lebanon newsroom.

To do that, I scheduled three public forums — what I informally called my “road show” — in Hartford and Lebanon in May, and accepted invitations to participate in three more events hosted by other organizations throughout the summer.

Here’s a slice of what I learned, particularly about how people interact with this newspaper.

I was overwhelmed by how many folks care deeply about the future of the Valley News. That includes readers who think we’re putting out a top-notch product, and even some people who have taken issue with our reporting. Two people who turned out to an event to take me to task over our coverage of an issue also spent a lot of time brainstorming ideas about how to engage non-readers and ensure the paper’s financial sustainability. I stood by the coverage and they stand by their objections, but we both learned from each other. I think that all speaks to the newspaper’s distinctive role in the region as both a dispassionate observer and a participatory community hub. Readers value both. They want both to continue.

Everybody reads the newspaper differently. The idea that everyone starts at the top of A1 is a myth. Some folks flip right to sports; others head to features like the Sudoku, crossword and comics; and so on. Lots of our online readers start their day with our morning “headline alerts” email, or catch up with breaking news throughout the day. I knew all of this on some level, but hearing what readers care about underscored that we are a dynamic product for a dynamic readership. (For what it’s worth, my favorite medium is the e-edition app on a tablet, and I usually start with the Forum, except on Saturdays, when I start with the real estate listings, just for fun.)

Readers are split about our front pages these days, which more prominently display local and regional stories (as opposed to national and international stories from our news wires) than in years past. I’m usually making those A1 picks in conjunction with a small group of editors, and I’ve tried to drive our local coverage up higher, because we deliver that coverage in a way that nobody else can. The majority of feedback has been positive, but some long-time readers fear our local stories bury bigger news. My hope is that as we showcase what’s happening in our backyards, our loyal readers will continue to flip inside for important stories from the world stage. I want the Valley News to continue to be the best place for you to understand your community, town, region, state, country and planet, even if the calculation of which stories go where looks a little bit different.

Sometimes we’re like the man behind the curtain from the Wizard of Oz.I got tons of interesting questions about what we do all day and how we make decisions. One example: How do we assess a source’s trustworthiness? The answer to that question might include a simple Google search or a full criminal background and reference check, and is commensurate to the extent that we are relying on that source and the type of information provided. Some key guidelines: Make sure the information passes a smell test (thanks to VPR’s Jane Lindholm for sharing that one at a Strafford event); understand your own biases in order to keep them in check; and find as many sources as possible to confirm what you’ve learned.

I also got to set straight some misconceptions. For starters, I don’t work 24 hours a day. I’m one piece of a talented newsroom of assignment editors, reporters, photographers, copy editors and layout staff who make this newspaper happen. Another one: Our editorial board and our newsgathering operation are two separate bodies, and they don’t influence each other. There’s also not a liberal billionaire funneling money into left-of-center editorials. (As I told one reader, even if he finds an editorial’s position to be absurd, people actually believe in what they write!)

Some folks are tuned into the pressures on the journalism industry, but in the chaotic news cycle we live in — Donald Trump’s extraordinary presidency, the 2020 campaign, and so on — many people are not. As I’ve written before, a survey of 35,000 Americans conducted by Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab found that 71% believe “their local news outlets are doing very or somewhat well financially,” and it just ain’t so. We are not immune from the tumult. Local advertisers are going out of business, digital ads pay pennies on the dollar, our operating costs are on the rise and it’s increasingly difficult to convert new readers into paying subscribers. When I started here as a reporter at the turn of 2012, we boasted more than 30 full-time staff in the newsroom; our full-time equivalents today are fewer than 22. Which brings me to …

Many people are understandably baffled by the firewall between the newsroom and advertising. After all, we must be the only industry that resists allowing key revenue streams to influence our product. For example, if newspapers across the country are hurting financially, why wouldn’t we agree to write a nice story about an organization that chooses to advertise with us? Aren’t we just chasing some abstract ideals to our grave? My response is that our independence is all we have, and as soon as we give it up, we’re not a journalistic organization anymore. It’s the only way I can respond to the aforementioned questions about our coverage, decision-making process or our editorials and say, honestly, that we have no hidden motive. It’s the only way you, as a reader, know that we didn’t publish a story to sell papers, but because we believed it would serve the public. Yes, newspapers around the country need to work on our business models, but the answer is not allowing money to influence the journalism; it’s industry innovation and public support.

On the topic of support, many thanks to the folks who turned out to ask questions and listen to what I had to share, and especially to the organizations that hosted me, including the Quechee Library, Main Street Museum, Kilton Public Library, The Woodstock Learning Lab/Norman Williams Public Library, Strafford Town House Forum and the Rotary Club of White River. I would love to participate in more discussions on the New Hampshire side of the Upper Valley; if your organization is interested in hosting a forum on local news, get in touch.

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com.