Monday, March 13, 2017

LETTER FROM AMERICA: The good, the bad, the completely mad

Never has the United States been, quite literally, more in the news. But while President Trump is falling out with the free speech lobby and apparently falling in with fake news what is happening on the front line of local journalism? ALAN GEERE, a former newspaper editor in the US, has been down in the deep south on the Alabama/Florida border to see if journalism is still alive and well thousands of miles from the events in The White House. And what are the lessons for regional newspapers back in the UK? 


THE antics from Washington feel a long way from Escambia County here in the far north west of Florida near the naval town of Pensacola. And that in part has a lot to do with the fragmented state of the media.
The TV evening news runs for two hours across the major networks and is a rolling tide of international, national, regional and local news interspersed with sport, weather and of course those pesky ads. Nothing gets much of a play and it’s difficult for viewers to get the context of that 30 seconds on Syria let alone the latest Trumpery.
Throw into the mix the fact that the concept of ‘national newspapers’ doesn’t exist in the way it does in the UK and you suddenly realise how important the role of the local newspaper becomes.
It’s quite a long way to anywhere from here. The more traditional Florida of Miami is 700 miles away (further than London to Prague) and the nearest big cities of New Orleans (200 miles away) and Atlanta (340) are both in neighbouring states.
And we are also deep in Donald Country with few sightings of the ‘liberal elite’ among the pick-up trucks and fast-food outlets that dot the intersection corners.
The Pensacola News Journal is northwest Florida’s most widely read daily, owned by Gannett (like Newsquest in the UK). Latest available figures, from 2015, show a daily circulation of 29,981 and a Sunday circulation of 47,892.
Impressive figures for a city that has a population of nearly 51,000, about the same as Inverness or Brentwood, both of which I know well and neither of which have a dedicated daily paper.
But factor in the number of people living in the two counties in the patch - Escambia (305k) and Santa Rosa (160k) – then those figures start to make more sense.
 At first, it feels an odd shape, simply because it’s unusual. It is tall and thin, giving just four columns of type but plenty of room to display pictures.
The Friday issue looked at here has three sections, running to a total of just 28 pages in total, plus a 12-page ‘Weekender’ magazine. Given that Section B is a digest USA Today and both the other sections are a mix of local and national the home-produced content starts to look a bit thin.
When opened out page one has impact, displaying four stories (three local) with decent sized headlines and pictures. The cut-out obscuring the masthead is technically accurate and provides a good throw to the sports section. Trouble is, when folded for display in both the newsstand and on the supermarket shelves the lead headline is obscured and the main picture (a decent aerial shot) starts to lose its context.
Section A starts well with a page of ‘Local’ on page three but quickly falls away to a page of turns and syndicated material from around Florida. The second section of Section A (keep up here, please, it’s printed as a six pager, then eight) is flagged ‘Community’ and starts with local listings. On through more syndicated then a disappointing Opinion page with columnists from somewhere else, a yawn-worthy contributed column and one letter.
Two pages of cartoons, TV, crossword, stars etc some more ‘news’ tucked away on 12, 13 and a page of business (nothing local) on the back. Best thing was a well-populated obit column, sadly set in a horrible bland typeface and unedited so it was difficult to read.
Sports is another mix of local and national. But local here really just means school and college as there is nothing doing for fit and active adults unless you can make it as a semi-pro.
A staff of seven reporters – all divided up by beats – three in sport, three photographers, one opinion, three on community desk, one executive editor and a ‘Consumer Experience Director’ looks a healthy roster for a paper this size.
Make your way west out of Pensacola through the never-ending thread of high-rise condos, waterfront homes and ‘lots for sale’ that make up Perdido Bay and the coast road ends up in Orange Beach, another resort town that never seems to start or finish or have a centre.
What is does have is ‘The Baldwin Times’, a weekly paper named after the county it serves in the far corner of south-east Alabama established in 1890, and still going strong with its 75 cents (about 60p) cover price. And it’s not difficult to see why.
The 28-page more traditional tabloid format is packed with local news, both newsroom generated and submitted. And they haven’t forgotten their roots in the community, with a four-page church directory well-supported by local advertising, a calendar of events and five pages of small type public notices, which will no doubt keep the paper ticking over very nicely, thank-you.
Some unusual neat touches, like a line-up of police mugshots called ‘Why are they in jail?’ and a wonderful 16-page section called ‘College Decision 2017’ which at no time feels like the ad supplement it is.
Head north and the next big title jostling (if no more than five titles can jostle) on the newsstand is the Press-Register, published three times a week from Mobile, by the Alabama Media Group which is in turn part of the might Advance which operates 30 newspapers across the country including the Cleveland Plain Dealer and The Oregonian.
It, too, has the small sections and an expansive design that treats white space with reverence rather than the enemy within. There are not that many stories, mainly because the space is taken up by fewer loooong stories, with impenetrable turns that are all grouped together on one page inside.
Also interesting to see submitted stories from the likes of ‘Office of Marketing and Communications’ appearing alongside other more traditional syndicated sources like The Washington Post and Associated Press.
My educated guess at the best-read pages were back on A17-18 where the obituaries appeared complete with an alphabetised index to quickly check whether it’s worth getting up today.

PJ VERDICT: It’s a bit too easy to say "I’ve seen the future, and I don’t like it very much". American newspaper companies have traditionally been ahead of the UK in predicting trends, protecting marketplaces and adjusting the workforce to deliver those ambitions. But if this is where we are headed this side of the Atlantic then I think we’re in for a continued rocky passage.
Of course, the markets are very different, but the drive to find cheap or even free content leaves some venerable old titles feeling very vulnerable. But where the concentration is put back on ‘local’ – by whatever definition you may choose – then media companies will continue to complete that virtuous circle of readership, audience and advertising.
I get a funny feeling that for once we in the UK are beginning to show the way…

This article appears in the March 2017 issue of PJ ‘The voice of news publishing and printing’. To subscribe go to http://pjnews.co.uk/

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