Newspapers must nurture their ability to lead important conversations


Who owns ideas? Who shapes movements?

Newspapers used to.

And newspapers still own some ideas.

The best ones still provide vast amounts of thorough, thoughtful, accurate, and vetted content to help readers decide what they think so they in turn can shape movements.

But that model is upside down these days. And that’s actually not all bad.

At newspaper properties far and wide, we used to tell people what they could and could not say in (often paid) community news content — even content as personal as obituaries, for heaven’s sake, or engagement and wedding announcements.

“Fill in these blanks on this form,” we’d coldly declare, “and then our space limitations will ultimately determine which of this information gets shared with your community.”


Removing those age-old restrictions means livelier engagement/wedding announcements in our newspaper and online. Brides can now describe the couple’s allegiance to, say, the University of Washington, by ending the announcement with “GO DAWGS!”

A warm and touching tribute written by a Spokane wife for her husband, who died of cancer, spoke of his love for cooking, sports, their three dogs, his “favourite napping buddy (dog) Lucy,” and for her:

“His ravioli are world famous, and people traveled from as far as Coeur d’Alene to enjoy them,” she wrote. “His two favourite bonus sons to feed were Cameron and Cole, who could smell his ravs from across the street and came running (not walking) for their second dinner of the night. He loved the Dodgers, March Madness (he literally watched games while I gave birth, and got kicked out of the room), the movie Tommy Boy, and barbecuing in his outdoor kitchen stadium. The only thing he was never able to accomplish was potty training Lucy. (I told you I would put that in your obit! Maybe you should have listened to me and written this yourself!)”

Why did we think tamping down/restricting this type of very human, very real content was ever a good idea?

The best in our business interact with and provide avenues for our readers to connect, discuss, decide, and act on important news — “real” news — of the day.

But they’re not the only ones. Look only to the wild success of the “Hunger Games” book trilogy and film franchise to note how pop culture continues to fill a role we used to own. (Of course, we’re talking about fiction, but bear with me.) Teens and adults alike devour the books, which take on big-ticket issues: war and its brutalities; class warfare; powerless children.

“Sarah Sheppard, 23, from Winston-Salem, [North Carolina], says her entire family, including aunts and uncles in their 50s, read the books and spent Christmas dinner debating them,” wrote Emily Listfield in Parade Magazine. “It was the first time we didn’t just talk about sports or family gossip,” she says.

“What sets the trilogy apart is Collins’s willingness to take on big issues: war, power, sacrifice, personal ethics, the haves [versus] the have-nots, and the dangerous nature of our increasingly voyeuristic society,” Listfield continues. “It’s a call for holding on to humanity despite the most trying circumstances — all packaged into a compelling, compulsively readable narrative. For kids growing up in a country that has been involved in military conflicts for the past 11 years, as well as adults faced with deep economic uncertainty, the message clearly resonates.”

Sound familiar?

Having a finger on the pulse of a community — and being in touch with others who do also — can be an asset newspapers too often forget they possess. The intelligence to lead, inspire, and suggest is yet another bundle of assets that makes what we do critical and vital to our audiences — our communities.

I’ll never forget attending a newspaper conference not too many years ago, when a vibrant, intelligent, dynamic speaker attempted to interact from the stage with newspaper executives in attendance. Despite her down-to-earth nature, her smart questions, her crackly energy, not one person would play. Dead. Silence.

“You people are boring,” she finally laughed, exasperated.

Her questions of attendees weren’t particularly difficult. I fear that audience reticence rested with being asked to interact, to reach out, to give back, and to be comfortable in one’s own skin.

It’s springtime, a season of renewal, the perfect time to use the abundant basket of tools we own in our markets: reader trust; a sense that we care about our communities; educated, dedicated, committed journalists; technology that connects us; and the ability to spot trends and inspire conversation.

A desire to make things better.

Sometimes you don’t know how you feel about an important issue until you read about it. Then discuss it. On whatever platform.

Being a part of life-changing discussion: what a rush. Treasure it, newsmedia friends, and handle it with attention and care.

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