Anti-Press Rhetoric Raises the Stakes for Engagement in Local News

Amid anti-press rhetoric at the national level, editors of local news organizations are feeling a trickle-down effect that increases the urgency of deepening connections with their readers.

President Donald Trump’s “enemy of the people” vitriol has reached the Chicago Tribune, for example, with reporters, editors and columnists absorbing more “hyped-up” feedback through social media platforms, email, voicemail and even mailboxes, said Chicago Tribune Standards Editor Margaret Holt.

“People will say nasty, obnoxious stuff and they will trot out the Trumpian anti-press rhetoric,” Holt said, adding that Tribune staff received security training in the wake of this year’s deadly shooting at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, in which five newsroom employees were killed by a man enraged by the organization’s coverage of his harassment case against a woman. The slain staffers were recently honored in Time magazine’s annual People of the Year issue.

But even when Tribune readers do use anti-press language such as “fake news,” Holt said, they often temper the insult, prefacing it with an explanation of their ties, however strained, to the hometown publication.

“They’ll start by saying, ‘We’re Tribune people,’” Holt said. “We have a connection in the community that is absent from some of these organizations that are bearing the brunt of this. [Readers] don’t see their Chicago Tribune as being like that press mob that they see on cable news.”

Hannah Wise is the Dallas Morning News’ audience development editor. Though media companies have traditionally viewed engagement work in terms of the bottom line, Wise said connections with readers build trust, and in the process, distance the local paper from national outlets that some readers have been “trained to hate.”

I support all of my colleagues who work in Washington, but that doesn’t represent the work that I do.

Hannah Wise, Dallas Morning News Audience Development Editor

“I support all of my colleagues who work in Washington, but that doesn’t represent the work that I do,” Wise said.

Wise runs a Facebook group of loyal Morning News subscribers, where she leads discussions about local issues, often using the paper’s articles to kick off conversation. She’s come to know the readers by name, and she responds to their questions and comments, not as The Dallas Morning News, but as Hannah Wise.

“We’re playing the long game, but I think it’s paying off,” Wise said. “We’ve had people say they have re-upped their subscriptions to The Dallas Morning News because we’ve created these spaces to have productive intellectual conversations with other people in their communities and journalists.”

There is a real heightened fear around safety.

Alexandra Ellerbeck, Committee to Protect Journalists

Alexandra Ellerbeck, Committee to Protect Journalists’ North America program coordinator, commended new efforts to topple the institutional wall between news organizations and their audiences. Still, she warned that openness can put journalists in harm’s way, especially at the local level.

“There is a real heightened fear around safety,” Ellerbeck said.

Wise felt that fear the day she met readers for The Dallas Morning News’ first public office hours. Just before meeting readers, a man crashed his truck into a Dallas TV station.

“We were legitimately concerned,” Wise said, adding that, in addition to posting the time and location of the office hours, her online engagement work has made her easy to find. “I had this moment that I was like, ‘You know what, if this is it, I’ve lived a really cool life.’”

So Wise went, and there was a man waiting.

“He just wanted to talk to us about journalism and how much he appreciates us and just tell us about some stuff he’s interested in,” Wise said. “This week, he called the newsroom to talk to us more.”

About the author

Jeannette Hinkle

Writer

Hinkle, a master's student at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, is assisting the Local News Initiative in highlighting challenges and opportunities in today's local news ecosystem. Before coming to Northwestern, she reported for a set of GateHouse Media-owned newspapers on Boston's North Shore.

Latest Posts

  • Sobering Reality for News Outlets: Your Readers May Be Elsewhere 99% of the Time

    Here’s a question for local news producers: What are your readers doing when they’re not visiting you? That’s the question asked by Northwestern University’s Spiegel Research Center in an eye-opening study of three metro news websites based on data from the media analytics company Comscore. And it’s a particularly relevant question because the study showed that the three news sites commanded less than 1 percent of their desktop users’ total digital time. The study, conducted...

    Continue Reading

  • Medill Teams With German Foundation for Global Seminar on Local News

    The Medill Local News Initiative and Germany’s Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung foundation will host the Global Seminar on Local News, a June conference in Chicago to discuss worldwide challenges to local journalism and their impact on democracy. The seminar will feature presentations by news executives from Bulgaria, Nigeria, Mexico and Germany as well as influential U.S.-based voices on the crisis in local news. The June 24-26 event is invitation-only, but video of the main discussions on June 25...

    Continue Reading

  • Knight Lab’s Class Brings Design Principles to Local News

    A new Northwestern University class called Design for Local News isn’t trying to make minor tweaks in the current media environment. It’s going straight to the question of what information the public needs and starting there to invent new products. “It’s like a Zen beginner’s mind, a ‘first principles’ sort of thing. Pick your metaphor,” said Associate Professor Zach Wise. As local news outlets suffer from a disrupted business model that has led to widespread...

    Continue Reading

  • Medill’s Franklin on Why Local News Outlets Aren’t Jumping in Apple’s ‘Magic Mixer’

    The recent launch of Apple News Plus is the biggest test yet for news bundling—the idea of selling access to a wide variety of news sources through one platform at one price. Apple News Plus costs $9.99 a month for more than 300 titles, mostly magazines but also a few newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times. In general, local news organizations have not signed on, put off by Apple’s...

    Continue Reading

  • The ‘eHarmony of Political Coverage’ and Other Local News Innovations Medill’s Research on Digital Subscriptions Empowers Newsrooms

    Here’s a neat trick that other newsrooms might want to steal. During Chicago’s recent election, the Tribune ran a quiz headlined, “Which Chicago mayoral candidate do you align most closely with?” The Tribune got candidates to answer a set of 14 questions, and then readers were invited to answer the same questions and learn which politician they were most in synch with. The feature served multiple purposes: educating readers on the candidates, helping readers focus their...

    Continue Reading

  • USC’s Crosstown Project Turns Big Data into Local News

    Gabriel Kahn says his data project, Crosstown, delivers “the kind of information that allows citizens to be the squeaky wheel.” Kahn, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism, and his team are developing Crosstown to analyze and publish data on “core quality-of-life issues” such as traffic, crime and air quality. The goal: to make large data sets useful on a local and even hyperlocal level. “Part of it comes from my...

    Continue Reading