Feeding that damn goat

I’ve been thinking a lot about “The Goat Must Be Fed” since the report came out a few weeks ago. I’m a little more than two months into my first newspaper job and so much of what’s said in the piece resonates with what goes on at the six-day-a-week publication.

We’re a fairly small paper–circulation is just 7,000–and a very small staff: three full-time news reporters, one (and a half) features reporters, one sports reporter, one sports editor, an assistant editor and managing editor. The scale is tipped (heavily, in my opinion) toward advertising and circulation, who round out the rest of the newsroom. It’s a pretty old-school operation, like many of the outlets mentioned in the report. We cover police reports, trials, city council meetings, school board meetings, construction updates, breaking news across a number of counties. It’s “legacy news,” writes the Duke Reporters’ Lab:

With limited resources, the first goal is to fill airtime or newsprint or stock the website. The goat must be fed, and the easiest feed is the diet it’s been fed for years.

We’re tripping over ourselves as it is to keep up with the daily news cycle; as lovely as the idea sounds, none of us can take time away from our regularly schedule programming to experiment with digital tools, restructure how we cover certain beats, or devote much energy to any large-scale digital projects.

Our situation is often frustrating, but it isn’t unique — in fact, we’re in the majority, as half of daily newspapers in the U.S. have a circulation of fewer than 10,000 and an average staff size of fewer than nine people. The paper I work for is probably never going to have its own iPhone app, or a data news tab, or a staff devoted entirely to building new tools for our newsroom. We’re not the Washington Post. We’re not even the Amarillo Globe-News. And that’s okay.

Digital news doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing endeavor. The report ends by listing some free or low-cost tools that smaller newsrooms can incorporate pretty easily into their reporting, if they put some extra energy toward it (it’s a question of resources and of priorities, the report finds). Small papers are not going to be the ones driving traditional news into the digital era, but we shouldn’t be the ones left behind when it goes, either.