The South Florida daily paper is in deplorable condition, financially and editorially: Yes, we’ve covered that. Now let’s tackle the hard part. How can the region revive this battered institution?
Because the dailies are worth saving. Even in their near-vegetative state, the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald, and Palm Beach Post still produce more local news content than television, radio, and online media sources. The collapse of those papers would make it nearly impossible for citizens to gain even rudimentary knowledge of what’s happening in their local government and business community.
Turnout for municipal elections is only about 12 percent today. It’ll plunge even further if the dailies fold. And counties with a history of corruption will have even more of it in the future.
To start with, the dailies need to recognize that they can’t compete against the rest of the Internet for celebrity gossip, sexy photos, and viral videos. There are hundreds of sites that deliver those goods much more reliably than the South Florida dailies — and yet the front page of their websites are blanketed with celebrity gossip, sexy photos, and viral videos. That’s wasted space.
A reader clicks over to the Palm Beach Post — as opposed to the Huffington Post — to find out what’s happening in Palm Beach County. And the Post has a virtual monopoly on that local news supply.
So get rid of the social-media experts, news aggregators, and search-engine optimizers. Use that money to hire actual reporters willing to venture into a three-dimensional world to find original news. By adding just a couple new reporters, the existing reporters can afford to develop more expertise within their beats, and they’ll be able to deliver much more in-depth reporting and analysis than they can today.
The next phase of our makeover is editorial tone. Consider why American readers are so hopelessly addicted to celebrity news. It’s because these are characters whose personalities have been developed over hours (or years) of media coverage, to the point where readers know more about celebrities than their closest friends.
Kristin Jacobs has been a Broward County Commissioner for 14 years, and she announced Monday she’s running for Congress. How much do you know about her? Do you know she calls herself a “hockey mom” and has five children and talks with a funny accent and used to be a beauty queen?
No you didn’t — partly because none of that is true. But you knew all of that about Sarah Palin after the first news cycle came to close on the day McCain picked her as his VP candidate.
It was enough to make you damned curious if Palin knew a thing about how to run a country, and so by the time Palin sat down with Katie Couric, the ratings were gangbusters.
The media created a celebrity in Palin. In doing so, they created enormous interest in her political views. Why can’t this happen on the local level?
It can. During my time as a blog editor for New Times Broward-Palm Beach, I took an interest in a congressional candidate named Allen West who was being completely ignored by the Sun-Sentinel and Palm Beach Post, probably because neither paper believed he had a chance to defeat an incumbent with a big campaign purse like Ron Klein.
Besides, he was extremely conservative, running in a 22nd Congressional District where the Republicans were thought to be fairly moderate. For months, I was the only member of the local media paying attention to the bizarre, borderline racist rantings of Candidate West.
It wasn’t till a few months before the 2010 election, when a poll showed West with a narrow lead, that the dailies finally decided to invest their reporters’ time on the campaign. Because of their tardiness, the bombastic West was a national celebrity before he was a local celebrity. And despite the lack of coverage from the dailies, West beat Klein.
Granted, a news purist would say that the Newspaper of Record ought to focus narrowly on the policies of a candidate, lest personality-driven coverage of that candidate lead to accusations of bias.
But being accused of bias would still be a sign that readers are paying attention, and that would be an improvement over the current state of the local press.