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Some tricks, treats about media collaboration

To quote the great Jean Shepherd, the author whose collected works formed the basis for "A Christmas Story," that holiday film classic, “They looked at me as if I had lobsters crawling out of my ears.”
Mark Sweetwood

A couple of weeks ago at a media panel co-sponsored by the Youngstown Press Club and the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County, I challenged other media members assembled to consider collaboration differently.

Like other survivors of the closing of Youngstown’s Vindicator, I don’t want to go through something like that ever again. Yet, there are many warning signs on the horizon for practitioners of mainstream media. Emerging audiences don’t like print, they hate commercials, they won’t settle for appointment television and they are far more likely to seek news on social media.

A reasonable person — and there are far more reasonable people than me — can readily conclude that the best remedy to building audiences is more original reporting.

In these days of shrinking resources and newsrooms, I made a bold pitch: Why don’t members of the local media collaborate on, say, routine-but-important items and free up their staffs to do more original reporting? My suggestion focused on those trick-or-treat lists that we all collect and post. Instead of five media members each working on the same project in a silo, why not just have one of us collect and share the trick-or-treat lists and the other four could devote that time for more original reporting? And then we’d rotate the next list, say, the Santa Claus Arrives List, to another media collaborator.

To quote the great Jean Shepherd, the author whose collected works formed the basis for "A Christmas Story," that holiday film classic, “They looked at me as if I had lobsters crawling out of my ears.”

Fast forward to this past week. We put our Halloween list together as did others (some were much more detailed beyond our scope, granted). Then the weather forecasters began to spook folks with forecasts of rain and wind. A couple of communities actually moved their Halloween events to Sunday. By Tuesday, these lists went from routine utilitarian fodder to must-read, highly-sought-after stories.

So far this week we’ve published stories about cancer survivors, broke a story about a Menards expansion, focused on Youngstown abandoning a fire station, covered Adoption Day, and highlighted Poland athletes. Yet, very little of that captured the Valley’s attention like the poll on and our Facebook debate about whether communities should move Halloween trick-or-treating to a different day because of bad weather.

So, we know these types of lists are important. We know they galvanize a community. It remains to be seen whether all media need to devote separate resources to create them. The old media war model of mutually assured destruction is mythological. The audience will ultimately decide winners and losers and I maintain that decision will be chiefly based on original reporting.

The one-stop shopping mall of local news concept — dominant in print and online and available on social media — died with the old Vindicator. It proved unsustainable in a market overserved by traditional competing media outlets all battling in the same revenue stream of a long-declining market. 

There are lots of stories to tell, however. Every day is more treat-than-trick for working journalists. If more media execs have the guts to imagine a different future of collaboration, would the audience be better served?

And isn't that — not world domination — the goal?

Meanwhile, I’m on another media panel Sunday afternoon, this time with Bridging the American Divide program in conjunction with the Columbia Business School. Guess what I’ll discuss? Let’s see what happens this time.