By CHRISTOPHER HEIMERMAN
For the Illinois Press Association putting readers first and putting plaques on the wall are not mutually exclusive for two of the state’s perennial powerhouse newspapers.
The annual Illinois Press Association editorial contest juggernauts are polar opposites in terms of size and frequency. But the 25,000-circulation daily Champaign News-Gazette and the 5,000-circulation weekly Galena Gazette are driven by the same mantra.
“Local, local, local,” said Hillary Dickerson, editor of The Galena Gazette, which has won the IPA’s editorial sweepstakes in its division for three years running. “That’s what we’re all about.”
The News-Gazette in Champaign takes its show on the road, meeting with subscribers – although you don’t have to be one to take part – at Meet the Editors events.
“We basically give people a chance to vent, to complain and give constructive criticism,” said Jeff D’Alessio, editor of The News-Gazette, which won its fifth straight sweepstakes this spring. “It’s unique to speak with readers face-to-face, talk things out, and that back and forth has been tremendously useful.”
A buddy story
It’s no coincidence The News-Gazette’s sweepstakes run began in 2014 – shortly after Jim Rossow became vice president of news. He dug in his heels and said he’d take the helm only if D’Alessio, his longtime friend and colleague, came along as editor.
“It’s been a fun ride,” Rossow said.
They both vividly remember attending the awards banquet in 2013.
“We got it handed to us,” Rossow said of the paper’s contest performance.
“It was an ass-kicker,” D’Alessio said.
So they re-racked the contest submission process – planning further in advance, working closer with staff and submitting in previously neglected categories.
A renewal of focus is hardly innovative. No, the innovation lies in the way the paper has taken a fresh approach to storytelling – from story structure to merging with a former rival, NewsTalk WDWS 1400 AM.
Thanks to the collaboration, radio reporters’ deep dives became A1 stories on Sunday – written by those longtime broadcast talents. The third installment of the “Cold Cases” podcast, produced by longtime WDWS News Director Carol Vorel, led to an arrest.
Print reporters hopped on the air and took to the mic with ease.
“We made last year the year of the podcast,” Rossow said.
He said since the merger, it’s become second hand to “cross-promote like the dickens.”
The paradigm shift landed another honor: The News-Gazette was recognized this year as one of Editor & Publisher’s 10 “Newspapers that Do It Right.”
The paper’s print circulation has been halved in recent years, but online subscriptions keep taking off, Rossow said. Monetizing the digital content is still a challenge, so the newsroom in Champaign is shrinking just as most others.
“We’re not getting any bigger, and we’re being asked to do more,” Rossow said.
So it’s important to work smarter, not harder, by incorporating the five counties the paper covers into regional, deeper dives, rather than having a presence at each community’s council and board meetings.
D’Alessio said providing variety – and levity – in coverage keeps staff happy, and that it’s crucial to check in with everyone every day. Each year, at least one reporter attends the awards banquet to reap the spoils.
“The most rewarding part of all these awards is they all had a hand in it,” he said.
Surviving May in Galena
At 9 a.m. May 29, Dickerson exhaled and sat down for an interview.
Her editorial staff consists of her, a full-time reporter and a part-time sports person. Her husband, the former editor who now heads up advertising, designs the sports pages and the news section’s cover.
Needless to say it doesn’t take long for her to check in with staff.
Now’s a good time, though, after the litany of May events in the charming tourist town.
“There are times of the year when it’s definitely hectic,” Dickerson said. “May is crazy.”
There’s a misperception, she said, that people don’t actually live in Galena, which serves as the Jo Daviess County seat.
“There’s a lot more going on than tourism,” she said. She conceded that the readership is on the older side, making the print product vital. “We work on what’s eye-catching, and what’s important.”
She said the key to great journalism is fostering relationships throughout the community – from the courthouse to City Hall to the football field sidelines.
“We’re very aware of the importance of building relationships in the community,” Dickerson said. “Those are relationships with people who are in all sorts of roles in the community.
“People trusting us is so important.”
It helped her pen her favorite project to date: a series on 17 immigrant families dubbed “Coming to Galena.”
“There were stories where we had to take a break in the middle of one of the interviews,” she said, citing one woman who spoke about leaving Honduras after seeing uprisings of gangs and people being killed.
The keepers of those stories won’t be around forever.
“We basically told their stories – what their life was like in the country they came from and what brought them to the United States, what brought them to this area, and their life here,” she said.
“People just thoroughly enjoyed learning, and I think it made people pause and think about the immigration issue.”
With May in the rear-view, she can get back to such passion projects. She said apart from the daily grind, planning and producing compelling series and deeper dives is vital.
“We’re not afraid to think outside the box, in terms of our reporting, and explore in-depth stories and series,” Dickerson said.
Keeping an eye on the Capitol
It seems the editors at both The Galena Gazette and News-Gazette agree on a lot of things. Among them is a reliance on Capitol News Illinois’ service. Dickerson said she plans to use the content more and more online, and D’Alessio said at the most recent Meet the Editors event, he got a lot of great feedback on the content.
Talk about a win-win. Readers get the Statehouse coverage they need, and papers’ staffs can keep thumbs on the local pulse.
“Every cover of every section has to be locally produced, even if that means pushing back national stories a page or two,” Rossow said. “When you do that 365 days a year, you need local story ideas.”