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In 2015, reader advisory board members asked for local coverage

Even in the year defined by Apple Watches, Periscope and Facebook Instant Articles, the feedback echoed across GateHouse communities with little else in common wasn’t that their local newsrooms didn’t spend enough time live streaming video or posting to Instagram. It was much simpler: when readers flip or click through their community newspaper, they expect community-centric coverage.

To be sure, flexing digital muscles cannot be overstated as a critical part of today’s newsrooms, especially as they learn how to connect with the next generations of newsreaders. But the resounding message from readers has been, In the midst of it all, don’t trade in the quality, hyper-local coverage most important to us.

GateHouse Media’s extensive reader research study, which surveyed readerships in diverse GateHouse markets across the country, found in 2014 that readers hold a real bias in favor of local news coverage. When GateHouse newspapers held reader advisory board meetings in 2015, many heard their board members independently voice this same preference.

This is particularly true of smaller markets, such as in Boone, Iowa, where Whitney Sager is the editor of the Boone News-Republican. Sager’s newsroom held monthly reader advisory board meetings in 2015, which gave selected community members the opportunity to regularly meet with newspaper staff and engage in open dialogue about the publication. Of all the newspaper’s endeavors, the News-Republican’s advisory board members were most impressed by the publication’s local coverage, even down to simple photo galleries of awards.

“Overall, I think the meetings went well,” Sager said. “The group pointed out things the paper was doing well – including localized news stories that can’t be found anywhere else, photos of check presentation or awards locals received, etc.”

The Repository's reader advisory board members
The Repository’s reader advisory board members

In Canton, Ohio, The Repository’s engagement editor, Laura Kessel, found that even when it came to something as universal as recipes, readers prefer an injection of local flavor.

“One [reader advisory board meeting] dealt with a longtime deceased staffer who was a Food writer for us,” Kessel said. “They suggested that we use some of his recipes, because many of our readers have been using them for years and swear by them, and also because he was a local face and they don’t necessarily like the wire copy we’ve been using inside Food in recent months. … So, combining all this, we’re launching a monthly recipe tribute to our fallen colleague, Jim Hillibish. It fits in with our 200th anniversary celebration, too. But, mostly, it’s a good local piece to our product.”

Interestingly enough, readers also told Kessel that while they couldn’t necessarily pick a wire byline out of a lineup of stories, they did immediately recognize local names.

Reader advisory board members of The McDonough County Voice in McDonough County, Illinois also expressed distaste for national wire content being used in place of local coverage.

“The major stand-out for The Voice was that our reader advisers had concerns about the insertion of major national news items into our carousel amidst local and regional pieces,” editor Jared DuBach wrote in an email. “The continued remark we would hear is: ‘We go to The Voice online for local news. If we want national news, we go to other sources or read major metro newspapers like Chicago Tribune, Peoria Journal-Star, etc.’”

Journal Star's reader advisory board
Journal Star’s reader advisory board

But even at the notably larger Peoria, Illinois’ Journal Star, whose market extends into The Voice’s nearby readership, some of the publication’s most successful endeavors in 2015 targeted meaningful local coverage. The Journal Star was featured in Columbia Journalism Review for editor Dennis Anderson’s efforts to include more positive and day-to-day local coverage of a cross-section of the city that typically only appeared in the newspaper through crime reports. Anderson did this by recruiting more of that area’s leaders to his publication’s reader advisory board, where these readers expressed their concerns over their lack of representation in Journal Star’s coverage.

“We have generated more than 50 stories from our monthly meetings with community members on Peoria’s south end and East Bluff,” Anderson wrote. “… Most important is the relationships we have cultivated with a community that rarely saw the Journal Star as a friend. That is changing for the better.”

Back in McDonough, DuBach has also taken his readers’ feedback to heart. In an effort to prioritize depth and breadth in local coverage, The Voice has increased the amount of information resources published, including court dispositions, more complete arrest logs and monthly property transfers.

“All of [these things] point to the reader vision that a community newspaper should remain a community newspaper,” DuBach said. “Regional or even some state news should be printed or published, but the focus should remain as local as possible to maintain relevance.”

In 2015, GateHouse Media added initiatives including reader advisory boards, in-depth news and reader-submitted content to the GateHouse Inner Circle, a company-wide program that defines best practices and expectations for newsrooms. These initiatives were introduced as a part of GateHouse’s effort to emphasize the local content that readers value in their community newspapers, and in 2016, the program will continue to expand its prioritization of local coverage through initiatives such as local Things to Do listings and town hall meetings.

At GateHouse, these initiatives exist alongside equally important digitally-focused expectations. As the industry evolves and more newsgathering tools are introduced, innovation should be the lifeblood of a newspaper – but not at the expense of quality, engaging local content. So continue to look forward, to explore digital tools and to build social communities online… not to keep pace with ever-shifting digital trends, but to deliver the same meaningful community-centric coverage to your readers in new and interesting ways.

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