The most popular feature of most community newspapers is the police blotter. Most subscribers consider it a “must read,” because they want to know what is going on in their neighborhood.
Internet entrepreneurs have figured this out, too, and they’re out to create their own police blotters and ramping up their efforts. For example, here’s an ad from Craigslist from an outfit called United Reporting for a part-time job:
“We want freelance reporters to visit local Police Departments (in the Sacramento Valley area) and pick up or jot down arrest blotter once, twice or up to three times every week. Dispatch it directly to us, and we will pay you $25.00 per visit – averaging up to $300 – $500 per month. ”
The ad is from United Reporting — Crime Beat News, an online news service providing local and statewide crime news at http://www.unitedreporting.com.
Similar services are springing up as well, some offering to sell an interactive site back to the newspapers.
Soon residents could begin bookmarking Web sites that list the blotter and arrest reports in their own community — not to mention their friend’s and relative’s — rather than get the scoop from their local paper.
The Web sites could also up the competitive ante (and win converts) by publishing the people’s names and/or exact addresses — something most newspapers choose not to do.
This means newspapers will have to dig deeper in crime reporting to differentiate themselves. At The Union, I liked to report crime news but also probe deeper, asking some tough questions:
•Why are there so many plea bargains and so few jury trials? Is a “revolving door” of justice cost effective and successful? What about drug court graduation rates? Should they be higher with more accountability?
•Why are so many judges appointed, not elected? How can a community make sure judges are accountable for their decisions?
•What about the conflicts of interest that crop up among law enforcement, those who manage their budgets (elected officials) as well as judges in a small community? What can be done to minimize this?
•Are law enforcement officers effective at “community” policing? Are they being vigilant in enforcing loiterers?
It’s all good information but not exactly “feel good” reporting. It can stir people up (at least the subjects of the stories), who can raise a stink. You have to balance it out with “celebratory” reporting, such as the award-winning page one profile of Nevada County Chief Deputy Coroner Cathy Valceschini that Robyn Moormeister wrote when she worked here.
But the newspaper has to stand by its reporting and maintain its independent voice — a challenging task in any small town.
It’s a Catch 22, however. Newspapers are losing their grip on the police blotter (a golden egg of content) and will have to search for new ways to provide the unique, local information to maintain and grow readership.