Shopping for readers: a proposal for local news

As she often does, Amy Gahran got me thinking today, this time about the average-at-best job local news organizations do covering consumer news. She asks whether news orgs could focus on shopping year-round, and not just on Black Friday, to do a better job of offering utility to readers.

The short answer: yes. The long answer, though, needs to also address the nagging question of why newspapers aren’t doing this already.

Ultimately, I think the problem is how we define what journalism is. And under currently-accepted definitions, helping shoppers find deals isn’t up there with Comforting the Afflicted and Afflicting the Comfortable. The irony is – especially in our current economy – data-driven consumer reporting could be of incredible value to local communities.

To figure why this is – why What’s On Sale is relegated to the commercial side of the house – let’s step back for a second and look at what newspaper do cover.

Is this journalism?

I think we’d all agree that covering the intricacies of local government counts as journalism. Certainly tallying the numbers and types of crimes – whether through narrative journalism or in a database – is journalism as well. Grading a movie? Tracking baseball stats? Charting the financial performance of local companies? All journalism.

But what about sales and deals? What if news organizations reported on that? Where are the best shoe sales? Which grocery chain has the cheapest milk? Which stores have the worst parking lots or the shortest check-out times? Is this journalism?

And what about auto mechanics? Who can you trust? Who specializes in Mini Cooper repair? What’s the going rate for an oil change? Is this journalism?

These examples may not read like dream assignments, even for someone fresh out of J-school. But they could very well be exactly the information that people in our market are looking for, but can’t find. Anywhere.

So, if it is journalism, why not do it?

So the question is simple, but provocative: if it’s just as difficult to report on the machinations of a complex government bureaucracy as it is to scope out the best deals this week at Big Box Mall (both can’t be effectively automated and both require reporting) why do news organizations choose to do one and not the other? And are we sure that readers would agree with that choice?

I’d argue that if newspapers want to grow readership and revenue, they to do both. They need to think even more broadly about what they mean when they talk about “reporting.” And they need to think of new and more useful ways to deliver that information that gets to the user when she wants it and needs it. This flips the existing reporting hierarchy upside-down:

Imagine a team of reporters whose job it is to cover consumer spending – arguably one of the most important drivers of our local economies and something all of our readers spend many hours doing – from the point-of-view of the consumer. And not in the traditional way, through columns and slice-of-life narratives, but with real-world data that will make it easier for people in our markets to live their lives. How surprising and welcome would that be?

And imagine a structure that would allow for data to come from multiple sources – reporting shoe-leather, data-feeds from participating retailers, reports submitted by readers – and distributed at the moment of greatest need: when a reader is at the mall, in the supermarket or in the car.

For a significant portion of the local audience, this is exactly the kind of high-utility, relevant information they need and that a large, organized newsroom is uniquely qualified to provide.

If only we’d agree that it’s journalism.

Who’s doing this well? Any examples of any US newspapers marshalling significant forces against retail data reporting?

Tim Windsor