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

For many local news organizations, the trickle-down effect of anti-press rhetoric at the national level increases the urgency of deepening connections with readers, local news organizations said.

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, the Dallas Morning News’ audience development editor, is working to deepen the relationship Holt described. 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.

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