Reinventing Newspapers, Over Coffee

By David Kassnoff

I used to brew the coffee for the village board of Clyde, New York, a town that appears on very few maps. Remember maps?

I worked for a small daily paper, the Finger Lakes Times, in Geneva, New York. My reporting beat covered most of Wayne County – a region dotted by fruit growers (never called “farmers”), electronics manufacturers, small businesses and an international company that sold costume jewelry through home parties, a la Amway. I skipped those parties, as many of my news stories emerged from attending evening meetings of village, town and school boards, and stopping by the local police department.

Woodward and Bernstein journalism? Miles and miles away, for the most part. I’d drive to Clyde after a quick fast-food dinner, fire up a vintage coffeemaker from Joe DiMaggio’s first “Mr. Coffee” TV ads, and call board members by their first names: Louie, Tony, Mike. Never an Annie or Lucy.

You never saw these towns on maps, either: Arcadia. Palmyra. Wolcott. Savannah. At one board meeting, a town supervisor asked me not to take notes as his board discussed – in open session – the malfeasance of a town employee.

“I can’t do that, Leo,” I told the supervisor. “It’s a public meeting.”

“Then why don’t you go get some coffee?” he asked.

I shook my head. “It’s a public meeting.” It took a while before Leo decided to move the board to executive session, where they could deliberate the future of the unhappy employee without my presence.

“No hard feelings, Dave,” Leo said. I smiled, knowing he didn’t mean it.

I recall my embryonic journalist days in light of Margaret Sullivan’s new book, Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy. I’ve ordered a copy, but I’ve read interviews in which she promotes the book. She speaks to the pending demise of local reporting, when a reporter would spend time with board members – in their meetings, brewing their value-brand coffee, and sometimes afterwards, at the bar in the local bowling alley. In these “after meetings,” you’d get the real stories: the town cop who’d squeezed off a few rounds and shot out a tire on his cruiser, etc. I became skilled at excusing myself to visit the restroom, where I’d scribble blurry notes on bar napkins, hoping they’d make sense the next morning.

Reporters like me – poorly compensated, enthusiastic but eventually headed elsewhere – were the backbone of local journalism. We asked questions that taxpayers on Elm Street couldn’t ask, because they were single parents working two jobs. We toiled for a family-owned newspaper whose publisher each year increased the type point size of news articles – at first, because his eyesight was worsening, but later, because it created the illusion of the same amount of news written by fewer reporters. Larger type and space-wasting illustrations meant fewer stories were needed to fill pages.

We wrote shorter. We wrote fewer investigative articles. This made for tighter, punchier stories, a skill that buoyed some reporters into the digital realm of TLDR (“too long, didn’t read”). But the real loss emerged with each departing reporter who, for financial reasons, wasn’t replaced. Beats expanded; a reporter who covered one rural county now covered two. Or three. Another series of local public meetings that couldn’t all be attended (no board met on a Friday night). As a result, fewer opportunities emerged to build relationships with the Louies, Tonys, and Leos of local towns. Sure, you could phone a town clerk or a police desk sergeant the next morning – with no assurance they’d take time to tell you what took place the night before.

Woody Allen is quoted – often inaccurately – as saying, “Showing up is 80 percent of life.” For local reporters, the ability to show up withers a little, every day. There’s little time to report a story, write it, post it, and then promote it on their Twitter or Facebook feeds. I see a skeletal quality in news articles that rely on some agency’s press release, rather than a reporter’s expenditure of shoe leather.

In early July, The New York Times’ Dan Barry wrote about Evan Brandt, the sole surviving reporter for the Mercury, a daily paper serving Pottstown, Pennsylvania. (See https://nyti.ms/2OcHuUA .) Barry described Brandt as one of today’s reporters: “Overworked, underpaid and unlikely to appear as cable-news pundits, they report the day’s events, hold officials accountable and capture those moments — a school honor, a retirement celebration — suitable for framing. But they are an endangered species being nudged toward extinction by the most important news story in decades. The coronavirus.”

I love Dan Barry’s vivid, wrenching writing. I feel Evan Brandt’s angst. There’s a good bet he’s not brewing coffee for some town board in Pennsylvania.

But I wouldn’t blame the sunset of local journalism solely upon the coronavirus. The departure of revenue-generating print advertising began long before COVID-19. Advertisers fled to Google and Facebook because newspapers failed to give many readers a compelling reason to stick around. They first gave away their ever-shrinking product online, commoditizing it, then tried to come about and charge for it. The pandemic struck, and many newspapers opened their paywalls for coronavirus-specific stories, further confusing readers.

I long believed that opinion columnists were best positioned to offer ideas or possible solutions when vexing about issues. They didn’t, of course. The best ones – Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko, Maureen Dowd, and others – made use of humor and satire to illustrate folly and frustrations. They let readers decide.

If this were a column, I’d offer this: instead of selling out small newspapers to callous hedge funds, I’d challenge newspapers to reinvent themselves. Collaborate, create partnerships, and share staff when necessary. There’s a 70-mile gap between the daily newspapers in Buffalo and Rochester, New York – and one small paper, the Batavia Daily News, in the territory between them. Why can’t they regionalize their reporting, cover the local stories more than echoing the national headlines, and build a collective news product that generates shared ad revenue?

I’m no finance wizard. I don’t have details in a plan for ready-to-go, curbside pickup. But I’d like to see newspapers survive. They’re not going to do it by serving up reheated stories about Washington, D.C., or New York or Hollywood that readers saw hours earlier on Twitter or People.com. Here’s a simple business lesson: You win customers by listening to their unmet needs, and giving them something they can’t find elsewhere.

Reinvent newspapers. And, I’ll be happy to make the coffee.

A former journalist and corporate communications executive, David Kassnoff today writes and lectures in St. Bonaventure University’s Jandoli School of Communication. He earned both his B.A. and M.A. degrees from St. Bonaventure.  He has created an award-winning online eMagazine, authored four books, and his photography has earned awards from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

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