Newsrooms never go on holiday. You may push up deadlines on Christmas Eve, but the reality is that journalists still work the next day.

I get the other reality. Santa isn’t delivering a sleigh filled with new hires anytime soon.

Yet, the work you’re doing has been the best gift of my new gig. You inspire often with this relentless pursuit to make a difference in your community.

You’ve been a public champion.

Angie Muhs, editor of Springfield’s State Journal-Register, rallied Illinois newspapers to call out lawmakers for inaction on the state budget. (Angie also finds time to manage Girl Scout cookie sales in her community.)

You’ve been a community believer.

Michael Smith, who oversees four newsrooms in the western Carolinas, delighted children when he showed up as Santa riding a motorcycle.

You’ve been about your readers.

Alan Miller, editor in Columbus, isn’t above fetching copies of The Dispatch and helping customers back to their car. Read Alan’s wonderful column here

Talk about high-touch journalism.

High-touch journalism means you’ve succeeded in building a close, trusting relationship.

Yes, the challenges are real. If you’re still reading this blog, you’ve resolved to make a difference by being the trusted watchdog and community champion for your readers.

Over the coming weeks, please think about GateHouse Media’s strategic news initiatives for 2017. We’re on the same page when it comes to compelling community journalism. We care about evocative storytelling in print and digital.

Our 2017 is based upon two priorities:

1) Do journalism with impact.

2) Embrace our future.

The thinking didn’t arise solely from an office deep in Austin’s Center for News & Design. We dove into research, listened to editors and paid attention to what’s happening in your communities.

Our readers have choices. They need us. They don’t need us.

It’s why we must return to our readers.

We have 125 daily newspapers in markets of varying size, but our effort for 2017 goes beyond a one-size-fits-all approach. We need to develop adaptable newsrooms that pay attention to “high-touch” common community issues and adjust to priorities.

This means moving beyond traditional beats to cover issues, experiences and hidden assumptions from our community’s perspective. Call it the #WinAtHome strategy, where we will work with newsrooms to identify content and engagement strategies for topics of ongoing importance to the local audience.

Each community has an identity that connects every resident. Understanding and tapping into that connective identity is key to high-touch journalism. Reporting on the context, challenges and opportunities should be distinctively nuanced from filing stories on government processes.

Dave Butler is moving Providence in this direction with extensive coverage of transportation and its impact on Rhode Island commuters. Their coverage brings together news that people need while supplementing that good-to-know coverage with vital watchdog work on how money is being spent. Providence also has done this with its state government coverage.

That connective community identity is one of the lessons learned from the presidential campaign. More than ever, our role as local news organizations is to have empathy for the communities that we call home. We must understand our readers’ pain points, be cognizant of perceived biases, and bring people together to solve problems. We must recognize the diversity that is part of our community’s identity.

How will we do this?

We’ll look after our readers’ interests with strong watchdog reporting and evocative storytelling.

We’ll affirm what’s important in our readers’ lives.

We’ll focus on content and community engagement efforts that connect with residents and drive community action.

We’ll create a step-by-step guide to help newsrooms discover their road map(s). Our code name: Project CAT. The name recognizes the community-driven work done by the Journal Star in covering Peoria-based Caterpillar Inc. The CAT guide focuses on three areas:

  1. Connect with your community. Understand what is important to the community, and resolve to own the coverage.
  2. Adapt with your audience. Listen first, listen often. Understand how they connect with news. Create news experiences that spur community action. Be a community thought leader.
  3. Transform your newsroom so resources meet priorities.

We are mindful that the media landscape is changing. At the Center for News & Design in Austin, we’re planning to evolve from a production-centric facility into a multi-faceted design studio, where we support our news organizations’ focus on high-touch journalism, strengthen our digital DNA, and explore new revenue models for our valuable content.

So many opportunities arise to transform our changing revenue model that we need a creative process that allows us to ideate and implement new content-based initiatives. That’s why we’re launching a yet-to-be-named Innovation Studio to grow audience, collaborate with strategic partners, develop new products and services, and help newsrooms tell important stories in interesting ways. We must tell our story in rich, evocative ways. We know our content matters.

I have committed a storytelling sin by burying the you-know-what. So, here is the dirt:

DO JOURNALISM WITH IMPACT

A) #WinAtHome news initiative that helps dailies develop content and engagement strategies for “high-touch” community topics of ongoing importance to their local audience. This is a major effort to help newsrooms focus on relevant, local news that solves community problems. We also will create a news-engagement program for our newsrooms as part of the #WinAtHome initiative. It will be a map for how newsrooms listen and engage with their community, tied closely to the News Literacy Project and proven efforts such as outreach by Dennis Anderson in Peoria and Mark Baldwin in Rockford.

B) Launch audience-based sections and high-impact reports that provide added value for local subscribers. We’re assessing a nationwide survey of subscribers. We’re starting the prototype process and hope to share new sections/pages soon with local markets for launch in early 2017.

C) Roll out revised newsroom ethics guidelines and training for GateHouse employees working in all delivery platforms. Enough said. The world has changed. But we need to ensure our journalism is recognized as fair and credible.

D) Recruit investigative reporters located in newsrooms to lead regionalized projects. This team will strengthen our data-gathering and training across newsrooms.

E) Introduce three competitive national internships in the coming months as we continue to identify and recruit talented college journalists. One will be a total design internship that includes UX (user-experience) and will be based in Austin next summer. We also plan to award summer internships for investigative reporting and community journalism, with both interns working in GateHouse newsrooms. (Our thanks to Rockford’s Mark Baldwin for suggesting the community journalism internship.) Why are we doing this? Consider it the first step in an ambitious effort to ramp up Austin-CND’s role in recruiting, identifying and nurturing top talent for all our newsrooms.

F) Roll out of Mario Garcia-designed print redesign in 2017. Efforts are already under way with successes in Erie and a focus-group test in Wilmington in December 2016.

EMBRACE OUR FUTURE

A) Expand our Digital Next initiative to all newsrooms with a focus on mobile and analytics. Jean Hodges has done a great job of developing our digital mindset, particularly among the top-20 newsrooms. We need to expand these efforts.

B) Develop and/or partner with various content providers as we launch audience-based verticals. We’re seeking opportunities that connect local audiences with everyday questions and passions. Possibilities include health and fitness, home and garden, personal finance, transportation, and family life.

C) Create an Austin-based (still-to-be-named) Innovation Studio. This is exciting. Consider it amped-up R&D. Our Innovation Studio will collaborate with partners to identify new audience opportunities and launch new products. We’re building off human-centered design principles and innovation insights leveraged from our Sarasota newsroom. The Studio will help newsrooms with branding high-end projects and work closely on developing verticals.

D) Move toward centralized and regionalized digital “jobs to be done” teams. We’ll pursue opportunities in areas such as video, audience growth, storytelling, brand marketing, and data. We’re testing this regionalized strategy in western Carolina. We’re also working on a refined video strategy focused on increased engagement.

This is about local journalism, the new reality, and how it relates with your audience.

Look for more details as we move into 2017.

Happy Hanukkah. Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays.

Continue to keep the faith.

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