The Inlander/May 2011
Newsrooms place a premium on ensuring that government is transparent in its decisions. When elected and appointed officials fall short, a commentary is almost sure to follow.
The principle is equally applicable to newsroom operations. Consider the many queries that editors and publishers receive on a regular basis. Why was my side not presented in the story? Why weren’t we approached to be part of your special business section? Why did the newspaper endorse my opponent without giving me opportunity to respond to the charges?
Transparency can be addressed in several ways. Taking extra steps will increase credibility with readers and can result in more substantive coverage. That’s a winning combination.
At its foundation, transparency means connecting with readers. Here are a few ways:
Convene a readers board. Invite and rotate a panel of citizens to regularly meet and evaluate the newspaper. Sessions can range from critiquing content to soliciting story ideas to identifying gaps in coverage. These panels will be most productive – and most rewarding to the citizens and the newspaper alike – if the participants have a role in setting the agenda.
Solicit perspectives for in-depth series. Solid research is integral to any story, and that especially applies to stories and series that dig beneath the surface. It’s routine for editors and reporters to brainstorm ideas for special projects. Among the reporters’ first “interviews” should be talking with the stakeholders of a story to explore the aspects they deem important to understanding the subject. Reporters then can finalize outlines and begin collecting information.
Insert “public” voice in editorials. The process for developing editorials runs the gamut. Large newspapers may have formal boards. At small newspapers, the publisher and/or editor may represent the editorial board. All newspapers, no matter their size, can benefit from voices outside the newspaper family. Consider having one or two community representatives, rotating them on a regular basis similar to reader boards. Their perspectives can be valuable in shaping opinions and can be a springboard for inviting guest commentaries or a point/counterpoint on a variety of subjects.
Open newsroom discussions. The exchange of ideas is integral to planning news content. Yet, that process typically occurs within the confines of a newsroom huddle. Readers obviously forward ideas that are incorporated in everyday newsroom discussions. But why not take another step and open newsroom meetings so readers can witness firsthand the process for content and offer comments. It may not be practical to do this on a regular basis, and certain discussions may be confidential. Extending an invitation may be especially beneficial when planning special projects.
Preview content. The web provides an excellent venue to preview stories in the works. An editor’s blog serves two purposes. No. 1, readers have a chance to submit ideas that might strengthen stories. No. 2, it’s a great tool for promoting circulation.
Explain your decisions. There’s no better way to keep readers in the loop than through regular communication. A column by the editor and/or publisher should be standard on the editorial page – in addition to a timely blog.
These columns can serve a variety of purposes. Educating readers on newspaper policies should be a priority. What are the guidelines for letters to the editor – why isn’t every submission published? Why, or why not, does a newspaper report suicides? Why are some ads rejected? Reader comments and questions provide a neverending stream of issues to address. The columns should not try to convince readers that a particular policy is the right policy, but rather to help them understand the whys and hows behind decisions.
One element – convening conversations– is common to all of these ways to connect with readers. All newsroom decisions are stronger if the options and perspectives are explored with as many individuals as possible, especially with people outside the normal newsroom discussions. Breaking barriers with readers in the spirit of transparency will make major strides in strengthening your bond with readers and enriching your newspaper content.