Charlotte Observer: We’re listening to you to make news coverage more relevant

Charlotte Observer investigations editor Doug Miller walks around the perimeter of the new Charlotte Observer offices overlooking the Charlotte skyline.
Charlotte Observer investigations editor Doug Miller walks around the perimeter of the new Charlotte Observer offices overlooking the Charlotte skyline. tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

Your Charlotte Observer newsroom stands at the edge of a new and fascinating frontier, and I want to tell you about it. But first, a word about what brought us here.

For most of my nearly 40 years in journalism, people in our profession have worked to answer an ever-present question:

“What is it that readers really need from us?”

There are, of course, business reasons to ask that question. A news organization only exists to the extent that you need it. But don’t miss an even more important journalistic imperative.

We can bring you stories, videos and photos all day, but if the vast majority of readers constantly skip over them, how can we say that this was journalism that truly mattered? That’s only the case if it mattered to a significant number of you. In fact, that’s the very definition of news.

Newspapers where I’ve worked in my career spent decades conducting surveys, holding focus groups and interviewing readers individually. We’ve scanned emails, watched comments and even squinted to make out scribbled remarks on cancellation notices. The Observer was so intent at unlocking this mystery that it named me its first “public editor” in the early 1990s. My mission: Find out what matters to readers and help our newsroom meet those needs.

We did become more reader-focused. All newspapers did. But the limitations of our research still nagged us. It’s only human nature, after all, for people to say in interviews what they’d like to be known for reading. We knew it was not necessarily what many were actually reading.

Well, we now know what readers actually read. More specifically, our technology can show us how many people are reading our digital journalism, what led them to it, what state or country they live in, how long they read a story, and much, much more. And that development, as you might expect, is revolutionary for a newsroom.

Don’t misunderstand. We don’t see who you are, personally. We simply know when a piece of content or topic attracts a crowd of readers, and when it doesn’t. Over the course of time, readers’ true concerns and interests emerge through unmistakable patterns in those digital measures.

In effect, you are speaking to us more clearly than at any time before in the history of journalism. That’s amazing insight, and it calls for a reset.

So, that’s what we’ve done. We’ve reviewed all of the topics that we cover, compared them to the topics that you collectively care the most about and realigned our talented staff to bring you more news that is relevant to your life.

The changes vary widely, from essentially the same reporting beats we had before to completely new beats aimed at intense interest in topics we were barely covering at all.

Will we manage to cover everything that anyone cares about? No, as much as I wish we could. The truth is, we were never able to do that, even when newspapers were media monopolies in their communities. The world is just too big for any one organization to pull that off.

But the Observer is more than big enough to provide what most of you rely solely on us for. And now, you are telling us what that is, simply through the choices you make every day on our website, apps and social media.

Could this approach be taken to unhealthy extremes? Invite misleading headlines and content of dubious value? You bet it could. It fact, it happens every day on the web. In our world, we call that “clickbait.” It’s a con, and the fastest way I know to lose credibility.

That’s why you need journalists with the integrity to resist such exploitation of your trust. You have those journalists at the Observer. They are in this for the long haul.

You also need journalists who possess the courage to tell you things you didn’t realize you needed to know. Journalists who will not rest until you understand something that is critical to your life, however boring it may seem on the surface. Observer journalists will do those things, too.

Most important, they will adjust their coverage to meet our community’s ever-shifting news priorities. Only now, they aren’t guessing about what you want or need. You are telling them.

Below, you’ll find the names of our 31 reporters, as well a brief description of what they cover for you. The names of three we’ve long treasured are not here because each of them is retiring. More to come next week on the terrific careers of those three: Karen Garloch, David Scott and Mark Washburn.

Ames Alexander, Fred Clasen-Kelly: Investigations.

Gavin Off: Databases and investigations.

Jim Morrill and Steve Harrison: Civic accountability of state and local leaders and institutions, focused on what readers need.

Joe Marusak, Mark Price and LaVendrick Smith: Breaking news; what’s happening right now.

Bruce Henderson: Important story of the day, going beyond the headlines.

Ann Doss Helms: Education.

Michael Gordon: Justice.

Tim Funk: Faith and its intersection with other aspects of our lives.

Ely Portillo: Charlotte’s growth and what it means to you.

Deon Roberts: Charlotte’s major employers, primarily banking, health care and energy.

Katherine Peralta: Breaking business news; what’s new and trending in retail; sports business.

Rick Rothacker: Business investigations.

Celeste Smith: Workplace and wallet issues, focused on work life and anything that costs you money.

Adam Bell: Challenges of urban living, including transportation.

Joe Person and Jourdan Rodrigue: Carolina Panthers.

Rick Bonnell: Charlotte Hornets.

Langston Wertz: High school sports.

Scott Fowler: Sports columnist.

Theoden Janes: Who and what is trending.

Kathleen Purvis: What we eat, both at home and when dining out.

Cristina Bolling: Social media, style, fashion.

Nancy Brachey: Gardening.

Dannye Romine Powell : Books.

This experienced and talented team will be joined in May by an enterprise news reporter, and in June by a public safety reporter. We’re also hiring a reporter for our sports staff to cover breaking news and NASCAR.

Reach Rick Thames at rthames@charlotteobserver.com, Twitter @rthames, or 704-358-5001.