Without quality news source, ‘all you have is that noise’

Womer: ‘The community is kind of always changing.
We just need to be aware how it’s changing.’

By Kevin Spradlin
ENGL 336

* Video

HAGERSTOWN, Md. — The building at the corner of West Antietam Street and Summit Avenue in downtown Hagerstown is not what it once was. Inside the lobby of the sprawling Herald-Mail Media campus, life-size photographs serve as a museum of sorts, memorializing the people and the processes of what used to be.

Photo by Kevin Spradlin It is difficult to miss the Herald-Mail Media building, situated on the corner of West Antietam Street and Summit Avenue in downtown Hagerstown.

Photo by Kevin Spradlin
It is difficult to miss the Herald-Mail Media building, situated on the corner of West Antietam Street and Summit Avenue in downtown Hagerstown.

And times, they are a changin’. There is no printing press forced into operation each night as the newsroom hits deadline. The Herald-Mail newspaper is now printed in Frederick. There is now a television studio on the second floor, home of HMTV 6. The Herald-Mail, owned by Indiana-based Schurz Communications, used to cover Frederick County, Md., but eliminated that coverage area to focus on Washington County, Md., as well as the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia — Berkeley, Morgan and Jefferson counties — and Franklin and Fulton counties in Pennsylvania. The HM used to have bureaus in Frederick, Chambersburg, and Jefferson County, but now “we just have some part-time reporters in some of those areas that work out of their homes,” said Jake Womer, executive editor.

Womer is a newsroom veteran with nearly a decade in his current position and 15 years at the Herald-Mail. He’s seen newsroom cuts. In the past week, the Herald-Mail informed members of its photo department, including two full-timers and two long-time part-time photogs, that the entire department (and their positions) have been eliminated. Even so, Schurz Communications remains, by most accounts, on the “nice” list compared to other corporate giants such as Gannett, Tronc, CNHI, GateHouse and others.

A newsroom staff of approximately 30 full-timers and 15 more part-time personnel — including editors, copy editors, reporters, editorial assistants and more — work to support an average daily circulation of 23,180, a figure that includes both newsstand sales and subscriptions.

Some things, though, never change. Speed matters. Accuracy matters. The Herald-Mail has fully embraced the 24-hour news cycle and is a 24/7/365 news operation.

“They’re hearing it from us before they’ve heard it from anybody else,” Womer said, with more than a little pride exuding from the editor’s desk. “Those stories are traditionally played strongly in print as well. We take pride in being first, getting the facts, getting good photos, getting good video … being able to tell those stories.”

A fatal traffic accident in Berkeley County, W.Va., is worth reporting to all of the Herald-Mail's readers.

A fatal traffic accident in Berkeley County, W.Va., is worth reporting to all of the Herald-Mail’s readers.

The Journal, in Martinsburg, has “more reporters than we do,” Womer said. “So they’re going to get stories we’re not going to get. We try to make sure we’re focusing on stories that are of the greater interest to our full readership area, not necessarily just the residents of Martinsburg.”

On a recent Thursday night, a fatal car crash in Berkeley County warranted a timely post online, and then, of course, shared on the HM’s social media channels.

“So, is somebody in Washington County going to care about this story from Martinsburg,” Womer asked rhetorically while explaining the editorial strategy. “If yes, that’s the story we should be writing. If not, then that’s something we leave for somebody else to do. In that respect, we have some very talented reporters down there (in West Virginia).”

Regardless of where the readers come from, or how they consume Herald-Mail news — on social media, on the newspaper’s website, in print, or on HMTV 6 — there is a certain way to go about collecting the news, Womer said.

“Journalism, local journalism, is very important,” Womer said. “If you take your local news out, a credible local news source, if you take that out of the community, then all you have is that noise. You have the rumors, you have the innuendo, you have the Facebook posts, and you don’t know what to make of it.”

Screen Shot 2017-11-17 at 10.15.29 PMWomer discussed how HM reporters work with, and sometimes through or around, hired spokespeople for various government agencies or other organizations. “Certainly government, and some of those entities … it’s not always in their best interest to tell the citizens everything. I wouldn’t want to rely on that to happen. There’s usually greater context to what’s happening than what a spokesperson provides. The spokesperson is working for that entity that has a certain mission of what to communicate. A lot of ’em, they mean well. They don’t wanna hide things. We try to approach it … from what the taxpayers need to know, what the citizens need to know.”

Womer said it comes down to “how do we make citizens understand how this story affects them? That’s not necessarily going to be what a spokesperson says … a lot of our job is sort of to translate, put it in context.”

Sometimes, adding that context can lead to mistakes. Womer said that’s where the Herald-Mail stands out with its strict corrections policy that involves at least two people, including at least a supervising editor, every time someone makes an allegation that the newspaper made an error.

“I think the No. 1 thing that protects our credibility … is that we correct our mistakes,” Womer said. “It’s important that everybody in the newsroom understand and abide by our corrections and ethics policies.”

Photo by Kevin Spradlin Jake Womer, executive editor of Herald-Mail Media in Hagerstown, oversees the day-to-day newsroom operations that includes about 30 full-time staffers and another 15 part-timers, with a circulation of more than 23,000.

Photo by Kevin Spradlin
Jake Womer, executive editor of Herald-Mail Media in Hagerstown, oversees the day-to-day newsroom operations that includes about 30 full-time staffers and another 15 part-timers, with a circulation of more than 23,000.

Womer explained that if a reader contacts the Herald-Mail with an allegation of an error, no one on the receiving end of that complaint is going to say, “I’m going to just ignore your phone call.”

Instead, at least two people are a part of the decision-making process on whether or not an error was made and, if so, how to go about making it right. In addition, the Herald-Mail — more so than any other newspaper interviewed for this project — is proactive in reaching out to readers, often by way of opinion pieces, to explain the stories behind the stories.

“There really are no secrets,” Womer said. “The secrets we have are if sources have told us stuff off the record. But otherwise, why we’ve made a decision, why we’ve chosen to do something, I have no problem telling people that information. We field readers’ phone calls and we’ll speak with them about why we’ve done what we’ve done … as a community newspaper, we’re trying to sort of hold a mirror up for the community. The community is kind of always changing. We just need to be aware how it’s changing.”

Opinion pieces are not the only way readers learn what’s going on within Herald-Mail Media. Womer said they have tried town hall-style meetings, with editors and reporters meeting up at a coffee shop in different coverage areas, as well as focus groups, in which readers are invited to weigh in on possible changes before they happen.

Pay to play

There are a variety of ways online news sources attract and retain readers. Many of those outlets, however, have some sort of pay wall in which readers can access content only after paying to do so. Like many other dailies of similar size, including the Carroll County Times in Westminster and the Cumberland Times-News in Cumberland, the Herald-Mail has a metered pay wall. With a metered pay wall, readers can access a certain amount of stories per month before being forced to buy a subscription — or get their news elsewhere.

Photo by Kevin Spradlin Life-size photos inside the Herald-Mail Media lobby show the process of how putting together a daily newspaper used to look.

Photo by Kevin Spradlin
Life-size photos inside the Herald-Mail Media lobby show the process of how putting together a daily newspaper used to look.

“You gotta pay for journalism,” Womer said. “I don’t see too many models where it’s completely free, unfettered access to journalism, where it’s going to work. In that regard, yeah, I don’t really know what you can do for people” to ensure they have access to the news and information about events happening in their community.

A metered approach seems to be an attempt to be a compromise between offering content free of charge and blocking reader access to any of it before receiving payment.

“If you’re not necessarily a newspaper reader, but there’s a story you need to know about, you can find it” and read it without paying, Womer said. “If you want to know what’s going on in your community every day, you’re going to have to either fork over some money or borrow your neighbor’s newspaper. Those are your two options.”

Womer said he was unaware whether or not Herald-Mail Media still participated in Newspapers in Education, a program  in which newspapers sell advertising space to local businesses and, in turn, deliver a number of newspapers to school-aged children across the coverage area.

Building trust

Despite what national opinion polls seem to suggest, Womer insists his newsroom is not full of Ivy League-educated people who are not connected to the communities they cover.

“Transparency,” Womer said, is “a big thing. How we relate to our readers. If people are lacking trust in the newspaper, we do need to find a way to reach out and say, ‘I’m not some Ivy League east coast graduate.’ The people who work at this paper have been here for decades, the majority of them, and, you know, we live in this community. We care about this community. We’re not that unlike you.”

Womer spoke of a tendency in today’s society to “otherize” people. Once that happens, “you can belittle them. I think people who are angry about what they call  mainstream media … feel like they have been belittled by the media. In turn, what they’re doing is belittling the media. The best thing we can do is try to figure out, get folks to see each other, look each other in the eye, and say, ‘hey, okay, you’re a normal person. Let’s talk.'”

In the interest of full disclosure, Kevin Spradlin is a former employee of The Herald-Mail. He last received compensation of any sort from the company in 2012

Filed in: Featured News, News

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