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The Changing Nature of News

And Its Impact on
Local Government


John J. O'Brien
By John J. O'Brien
Executive Director, New Jersey
Press Association

In April of this year I will celebrate my 45th anniversary as a member of “the media.” Most professionals who have spent their entire career in one industry would be feeling comfortable and even content with their surroundings after such a stretch.

I must admit, however, that lately there are days when I am lost, confused and bewildered by the changes taking place around me. There has never been a period of disruption and change in the media that approaches the transformation taking place right before our eyes. Friends have become enemies, enemies are now friends. What was right is now wrong and wrongs have become right. For young people in the media these can be exciting and inspiring times. For those of us who are a little less young, there are days that seem downright scary!

The newspaper industry, both in New Jersey and nationally, is in a state of transition from a print product business model that’s worked pretty well for 400 years, to a model that deploys a variety of products—print, online and mobile—to deliver content that’s tailored to many different niche audiences.

laptop computer with magazines coming out of the screenClearly, some newspapers are struggling to bring their operations in line with this new market, but we can all take a cue from the music business: people are still buying music; they just aren’t buying record albums in record stores anymore. So it will go with information: people will still buy or at least search out certain types of news, they just may not all buy it printed on newsprint.

Different companies are responding to this challenge in different ways. In my view, the successful ones will be those that are willing to leverage their brands to deliver local-centric news in multiple formats. But in order to do that, they have to make changes in their organizations. Guess what SONY’s first product was: electric blankets! They’re not in the “electric blanket business” any more… but they are in the consumer electronics business. Not all “newspapers” will always be in the “news on paper” business… but most will still be in the “news” business.

How does all this change affect you, our customers and news sources? First, the choices and frequency of delivery of information will only continue to increase. 

A few short years ago I watched CBS to get national and international news, read my daily newspaper for national and state events and trends, and relied on my weekly newspaper to fill me in on my community. Now I can get national and international news 24/7 on my TV’s all-news channels or from thousands of websites through my computer. My daily newspaper and its website have become extremely local and my weekly paper is now 24/7 on the web! Mindboggling to say the least!

The impact on municipal officials around the state has been equally staggering. Because of consolidated ownership of many news outlets in these uncertain economic times, there are fewer reporters actually covering the news than there were 10 years ago, but the public’s appetite for news has never been greater. Thus we have reporters scurrying to gather information from municipal officials in just a fraction of the time they once could devote to such efforts. There was a time, for example, when a reporter covered one or two police departments and would drop in at headquarters once a day to find out what was going on. Today I know one daily reporter who is responsible for over 25 departments and he needs to know the news right now! He calls each of his departments several times a day. This urgency tends to strain the relationships between sources and the reporters who rely on them.

Competition by news outlets has benefited coverage of municipal government in many cases. Historically a reporter from the local paper was probably the only media person to regularly attend municipal meetings. Often that reporter had covered those meetings for many more years than the local officials had served. Thus the reporter was a handy resource when questions arose about past activity or when everyone needed a quick history lesson. Unfortunately, those days are gone. Because of increased competition from website reporters and bloggers, that local reporter doesn’t have a monopoly anymore. And, with the shifting of reporters to different beats, that reporter probably isn’t the same one who covered last year’s meeting anyway. With more eyes watching and ears listening, however, local officials are under increased scrutiny—and a great deal of pressure—when conducting the public’s business.

Officials may also see a change in their access to local media. For instance, while it may be more difficult to get media photographers to attend a function, it has never been easier, due to new technologies, to take quality photos and submit them yourself. Thus, the “mystique” of getting a picture in the paper now becomes a “do-it-yourself” project. Submitting news stories electronically also increases the chances of publication in many cases.

Some technology changes have benefitted us all. One example is the website created by The New Jersey Press Association; njpublicnotices.com, where all of the public notices published in New Jersey newspapers are housed. They are searchable by county, municipality, newspaper and in other ways, thus providing a valuable tool for government entities and private parties to access them readily for a variety of useful purposes. Because of the technology installed by newspapers, the time-consuming, labor intensive chore of inputting and uploading such information is eliminated.

To say today’s media is a “work in progress” is an understatement. No one is sure where all this is leading or whether new media forms will provide better coverage of local events. Only one thing seems certain. The amount of information available to the public will continue to multiply and to cover an ever-wider spectrum.

I now read newspapers from around the country each day on my computer. I do my grocery shopping on-line. And just last week I downloaded my Continental boarding pass onto my iPhone and had my phone scanned so I could enter an airplane. What’s next?

John O’Brien is the executive director of the New Jersey Press Association, the association of the states nearly 200 daily newspapers, weekly newspapers and digital new organizations. He can be reached at jjobrien@njpa.org.

 


This article appeared in New Jersey Municipalities, Volume 87, Number 3, March 2010

 

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