Friday, January 19, 2018

Community Conversations -- Best Ways to Deliver News to the Community

Disclaimer: I did not attend last night's Community Conversation with the intention of blogging about it, but the next day I find myself still thinking about it. Writing helps me to think about what I am processing.


Last night the Lawrence Township Community Foundation hosted their 10th Annual Community Conversations. I have no idea what the topic was in the other nine years, but when I heard they were planning to talk about the "Best Ways to Deliver News to the Community," I knew they hit upon a winning idea. As a former writer for the Lawrenceville Patch, Lawrence Gazette, and have had pictures published by the now-defunct Lawrence Ledger, people ask me for advice about getting their word out. They are often asking on behalf of their non-profit, religious organization, or special interest group because they are in charge of advertising the event and spreading the word about it beyond their usual audience. Often I shrug and sympathize in response. Yes, it is hard to get the word out in a town only being served by a monthly newspaper (the Gazette) with hyper-local Facebook groups, such as Ladies of Lawrenceville, filling in the gaps.

After a light supper of sandwiches and drinks we settled down to business. Ten panelists were each given five minutes to introduce themselves and their ideas. James Thompson an advocate for Free Press and community member on the News Voices, a project which partners with newsrooms to ensure their coverage responds to local needs and better represents the community spoke first. He was the only panelist to use his entire five minutes. He said "people mistrust the media." That thought is probably truer in 2018 than ever before.

Rich Rein, founding editor and publisher of US1 spoke next about the limited number of reporters and the many distractions out there for our attention. (Look: squirrel) His advice for us was to send agendas and minutes from meetings since they no longer have enough reporters to attend township meetings. Share what you can with them, please. I'll lump the fifth and sixth speakers (Joe Emanski and Sam Sciarrotta) with him since they are with Community News, which is owned by US1. Joe advised us to be "open and honest with the media" because "relationships are everything." Sam said she "thinks about the readers" when reporting on stories.

The third speaker was Joe Eisele with the Newspaper Media Group (which many of us think of as the Packet) made a surprise announcement. Surprise as in no one expected ANY announcements at this event. Breaking news: The Lawrence Ledger (a weekly newspaper) is returning as of March 27. The Princeton Packet had been carrying a story or two a week about Lawrence, but it wasn't enough. In their last days they only had 800 subscribers (we have over 30,000 people in town, or about 10,000 households). He offered advice for helping the paper succeed when it returns to life: Thank the advertisers for supporting local media. This encourages them to continue to advertise, which encourages Newspaper Media Group to continue printing.

Local favorite reporter Lea Kahn was up fourth. She used to be the ace reporter for the Lawrence Ledger and is now covering four towns for Newspaper Media Group -- talk about stretching reporters thin. After admitting she is more comfortable sitting where we were sitting, holding a notebook and taking notes, she talked about life as a reporter being about making connections by being in the community. She likes to make national news about the local community -- such as the recent tax bill. She figures "If I'm interested, at least a couple of other people will be, too." Advice I've tried to keep in mind when I write stories for the paper, and blog posts alike.

Ingrid Reed from the League of Women Voters was the seventh panelist. I was distracted by thinking she would make a really good subject for a memoir. She has been active in the local media for decades and must have some amazing stories to tell. I did note she said we must "hold towns accountable for a good website" and that we are living in "challenging and exciting times." I have used the phrase historic times to describe life now, so I agree with her. Our town website is in the process of receiving a major overhaul.

Lana Mueller from the Lawrence School system spoke about her challenges with reaching out to the 75% of population who does not have children in the public school system (like us). There is a referendum vote happening in a week and despite their best efforts, people are still surprised about it.

The last two speakers were from Rider University -- Kristine Brown in charge of communications, and John Mozes the voice of The Bronc (Rider's radio station). I've heard John's voice in my bedroom and car over the past three to four decades since he used to be with WPST. As you might expect, he is a great speaker. He told the audience not to forget radio when looking to advertise. There is a $17 return on investment for each dollar spent on the radio. Nearly 100% of the population listens to the radio (often in the car), and they are more likely to act on what they hear than they are if they hear the same message on television. "Use it with other media." It doesn't matter where people hear the message, as long as they hear it.

That was supposed to be a quick introduction. From here we broke into smaller groups. I joined Kristine and John at their table, which was twice the size as intended. I learned the president of Rider wants Rider to be a bigger part of the community, but they don't know how. They don't offer an email blast to the community, which I think would be a big step in the right direction.

We were tasked with identifying two action items to share with the general group about how to improve communication in the town. For the evening, ignore how much it will cost and simply focus on the concepts. Reality and implementation is further down the line.

The top idea, by far was for someone to create a comprehensive town-wide calendar and website as THE Go-To place to know what is happening in town. 

Sounds fabulous and perfect for the township to organize. But, no. If the town does it, they cannot include events by religious groups or commercial enterprises. 

That would slow down who could participate.

There were other ideas, such as creating a place to share serious, issues-based news (instead of event-driven news). It was pointed out we are a diverse community and we need links to all community resources. One group spent their time talking about the importance of press releases and how organizations can use them to share their ideas. Don't forget to include an image with the press release. People want information more frequently than the once a month offered by the Gazette. I suspect the Ledger's once a week won't be enough, either. We've gotten use to having 24/7 access to news.

The LTCF is planning to create a media list (yay!), but then the list will need to be maintained in order to be effective (the hard part).

What models can we look to for advice on how to do a better job? Suggestions included Planet Princeton and using the resource list at Sustainable Jersey. Other ideas about how other towns are spreading the word would be welcome.

The panelists

It was a great opening dialogue on an important topic. About 90 members of the community turned out to hear the 10 panelists and brainstorm. Thank you to ETS for hosting us, and for providing dinner and snacks. Those of you not from Lawrenceville can probably glean a few ideas for your community from our discussion. 

The discussion will continue as three hours were only enough time to start the ball rolling.

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