The decline quality of the News and Observer over the last ten years is legendary in journalism circles. And this isn't a "The newspaper people were mean to my sports team rant!" – I haven't had a problem with their coverage of UNC's recent troubles. The journalists do the best with what they have, but budgets have been slashed, and corners cut, and it shows. Literally, in the case of the corners, in fact. Pull out a copy of the paper from the nineties if you have one celebrating a UNC championship or something and lay a modern copy on top of it and see how thinner the page is.
The N&O has been owned by the McClatchy Co. since the mid-nineties, one of a bunch of media companies that decided that massive expansion was a smart thing right as the Internet was destroying their business model. Bureaus are now being dropped left and right, with more and more content being provided by wire stories and content shared across papers. Which brings me to a little thing I've noticed lately.
I read a lot of stories on Butch Davis yesterday, so when it came time to link to a couple at the beginning of the last blog post, I just typed "Butch Davis" into Google News and waited for the big ones to come up. I assumed the N&O articles would be near the top, because hey, local paper, in-depth coverage, yadda yadda. Let's take a look a what you find:
See the N&O stories? They're actually there, if you read the paper well enough to recognize the names of the reporters. There's Robbi Pickeral's piece halfway down the page, who's been at the paper since I started blogging, a Caulton Tudor's near the bottom, right above Backing the Pack's piece. But Pickeral's listed as writing for the Sacramento Bee, and Tudor the Merced Sun-Star, both McClatchy papers in California. Now ask yourself, if you were quickly skimming Google for UNC news, would you turn to a couple of minor California papers, or would you just click on the Fox Sports or ESPN piece?
You see, McClatchy publishes it's articles across all of its papers to make up for how bare-bones its operations is, ignoring the fact that it's pushing articles about UNC on an uninterested Merced audience. But having the same content across a bunch of websites makes the content look less important. It's spamming Google, so Google downgrades it and sticks whatever paper wins the SEO game on the middle of the page. The paper comes across as irrelevant, and the articles – which again, are good! – don't get read.
McClatchy seems to think that everyone hits the front page of their local website and just stays there, reading everything like it's a Sunday morning. But the whole point of the web is that you don't have to do that. You can get alerts for whatever interests you and skip the boring crap. It's time to accept the fact that your readers realize you're a chain. They can tell when news is local or something that was just written in Miami and irrelevant to them. Admit it! If you think the folks in Merced want to read about Marvin Austin, have the paper link to the N&O site. You still get the ad revenue, the reader knows it was written by someone at the scene, and you actually come across as a far-reaching news organization, rather than a motley collection of stringers hanging on for dear life to a publishing model that used to work. And people will actually be able to find your work in Google and read it.