The News Journal is feeling the heat these days as writers from outside its ranks come up with compelling stories, like the recent piece on apartment development in downtown Wilmington.
This trend has been around for a while. Over the years, the New York Times or other national media would step in and write a trend story, sometimes with a News Journalesque flavor and without the daily’s sometimes world-weary tone.
News Journal staffer Maureen Milford worked as a free lancer for the Times for many years offering pieces that put an upbeat spin on real estate matters in the city and state.
The Wall Street Journal would also stop in from time to time to talk to corporate poo-bahs or academics.
Milford’s bosses on Basin Road were OK with that. After all, the Times, while influential, sold only a handful of copies in Delaware. Conversations about stories were largely confined to rarified circles in business, arts or academia.
The digital revolution changed all that and of late, the News Journal has not been able to simply look the other way.
In December, we had the controversial Murdertown USA piece in Newsweek that depicted a dreary city struggling with a high homicide rate.
Most of us had not picked up a copy of Newsweek in years, but social media and email links led to the well-crafted story being read by tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of people.
The piece produced a heated response from the administration of Mayor Dennis Williams. More importantly, it spurred a conversation and a flurry of activity.
City Council members, business, new Attorney General Matt Denn, legislators, the Markell administration and to some extent the Williams administration went to work on the issue.
The News Journal responded with a front section piece taking note of the story and the response.
Fast forward to February and a New York Times story surfaced from free lance writer John Hurdle on a wave of apartment of development in downtown as younger people come to Wilmington, often without the built-in perceptions of the population in the suburbs. Hurdle, who works out of the Philadelphia area, has done a number of stories on environmental, business and urban affairs in the region.
The News Journal had actually done some reporting on the expansion, but no one had fully covered the impressive effort, mainly by the Buccini/Pollin Group, into a comprehensive story that would grab the attention of readers.
The same thing had happened elsewhere in the city with the Times’ coverage of the sale of paintings at the Delaware Art Museum. The issue was covered in more graceful detail by the News Journal, but the Times’ expertise in the rarified world of art gave it a distinct edge.
On a much smaller scale, this website reported news of a warehouse conversion to apartments and a hotel that will be built in a now vacant office building.
Neither project on the north edge of downtown was featured in the News Journal.
This time around, it hurt that for the third time, the digital world took hold and the latest Times was shared over and over again.
The Williams administration did its part, by sending a link along in its city email alert system that goes out to some residents, business and the media. The Markell administration did the same on its popular Facebook page.
The News Journal was playing catch-up and posted a lengthy “me too” story over the weekend.
Back in the old days they called that getting “scooped” and it is a terrible feeling for a reporter. Too often, we would point back to an earlier story and blame the short attention spans of readers.
This time around, reporters and even editors are not to blame. The numerous departures, the rise of digital media and the long-running monopoly mind set of the News Journal have led to a lack of thoughtful well-written and tightly edited stories that would grab the attention of readers.
This legacy media outlet needs to find writers and editors with the time and talent to write compelling stories, perhaps on a free lance basis and outside the often dysfunctional newspaper culture.
In the end, writing thoughtful stories may be the only way the paper and website can hope to remain relevant in an unforgiving digital environment.
For those who don’t care about the future of the News Journal, keep in mind that we do not know how long the Times, Newsweek and others will have the resources to come to town and write these important stories.
(A final note. Sunday’s print edition featured a rambling Page 1 piece with three authors on the homicide epidemic. The story on downtown apartments was on the business section, near the back of the paper. There was also a spirited defense of the NJ’s coverage later in the week by one of its former reporters via a Twitter exchange)