Look beyond the immediate news, and stay relevant
Publishers’ Auxiliary/April 2013
Many newspapers do a great job of looking in the rearview mirror, and that used to be adequate for inviting readers into their pages. The old formula doesn’t work anymore if community newspapers are to remain relevant. The changing media landscape, coupled with the demands on readers’ time, require that newsrooms pay just as much attention looking ahead and around as to looking back.
Let me explain.
Newsrooms pride themselves as providing a living history of their communities, and the examples are numerous. Meeting reports of government bodies cover almost every agenda item from the first to last. Sports stories provide play-by-play chronology from start to finish. A national manufacturer announces it will locate a major facility in your community; the CEO’s comments at a press conference are published almost verbatim.
Don’t misunderstand. These stories are important and necessary, but they should be considered only one element of the overall coverage. Bottom line, it’s important to examine all news from a variety of perspectives if you want to deliver substantive reports.
Quiz your peers and you’re likely to come across a variety of formulas for reporting the news. Here’s one promoted by Gannett newspapers: Each story should pass the INCH test – Impact, news, context, human dimension.
News: We’re all pretty adept at reporting the second element – “news” – by covering the 5 Ws and one H: Who is it about? What happened? When did it take place? Where did it take place? Why did it happen? How did it happen?
Impact: We report that a city council raises sewer rates by 5 percent, but do we clearly explain the impact? What will be the dollar increase in monthly utility bills for homeowners, Main Street businesses and small and large manufacturers?
Context: The basketball team, looking to repeat as conference champions, loses a heartbreaker midway through the season that drops it out of first place. Does the story paint the complete picture? What opponents are left on the schedule and what are their records? Are the games home or away? A simple graphic accompanying the story provides an immediate glimpse.
Human dimension: News of a manufacturing facility, and a couple of hundred jobs, is a shot in the arm for a community with high unemployment. The announcement provides opportunities for several stories from detailing the types of jobs that will be available to interviewing a family that has struggled in recent years. The announcement could have negative impact, too, if landing the facility requires relocating homes and/or businesses to make room for the facility.
It’s relatively easy to identify the “INCH” in many stories. Other stories may prove a challenge. In that regard, why not set aside time at your newsroom meetings to both review coverage from the previous couple of weeks and stories on the horizon to brainstorm ideas for broadening coverage. Do so regularly, and the practice will become second nature for reporters.
The strongest coverage is two-pronged, especially in public affairs reporting – solid advances to inform readers and ensure robust community discussion and participation, and follow-up reports that provide meaningful interpretation of what happened. Rest assured, this approach requires hard work – but remember, everyone benefits. Citizens will be more aware of the importance of upcoming events, and newspapers will increase their relevancy in readers’ everyday lives.