A reporter’s first assignment should be a newsroom orientation

by | Jul 1, 2009 | Recent Writing | 0 comments

The Inlander/July 2009

We’ve all experienced our first day on the job as a reporter. Those most fortunate had the luxury of shadowing their predecessors for a few days. In most cases, however, most new hires probably were introduced to the newsroom, directed to their desk and instructed how to log onto their computer. They’re given a stack of materials to review for their particular beat and instructed to check with the editor as questions arise.

OK, most newsrooms likely have a bit more structure for new employees. But it’s a good bet that many newsrooms fall short in acquainting reporters with the people, places and issues they are supposed to observe and analyze.

The results are predictable and an open sore on the newspaper. Consider these two examples:

A local business owner and operator – 40 years at the helm of the business – dies. The only mention of his prominence is a single sentence in a standard obituary which notes when he bought the business.

A former city council member, out of office for about a half-dozen years, is featured prominently on a front-page story. The name is misspelled.

These examples might well be chalked up to sloppy editing and failure to check the facts by reporters – and editors, which is even more inexcusable. That notwithstanding, a range of stories will be richer and more relevant to readers if reporters have proper background.

Here are some elements to consider when training reporters:

  • Search the archives: Become familiar with where to find background on community issues. Scan the last three months of the newspaper and identify the people, places and subjects at the forefront of community attention.
  • Tour the town: Names and places are at the heart of community news. Give reporters a tour and connect the sites with what’s in the news.
  • Introduce the beat: In ideal circumstances, reporters will have an opportunity to shadow their predecessors. In reality, reporters too often are thrown into a position with no overlap. Reporters need a personal introduction to the individuals with whom they will be interacting.
  • Learn the community circuit: Aggressive public affairs reporting is at the heart of strong community newspapers, and the strongest stories are those that go beyond the “official” sources. The United Way chair, YMCA executive director, bank president, chamber of commerce executive, labor hall chief – these and many more individuals make towns click. Take reporters on the circuit of local civic clubs.
  • Read the entire newspaper: Reporters can easily fall into the trap believing that the world revolves around their particular beats. Content will be stronger and more relevant if reporters understand – and explain to readers – the interrelationship of all actions and activities in a community.
  • Consult newspaper family: Too many newsrooms operate in a vacuum. It’s important to understand overall newspaper operations – from advertising deadlines to distribution. The newspaper family also is often an excellent cross-section of a community. Employees can be a rich source of ideas and background information for stories.
  • Know your competition: Become familiar with local and regional newspapers, radio and television outlets. Pay attention to local bloggers and other social media networks. Monitor these reports regularly.
  • Develop informal networks: All communities have hot spots of conversation. One small-town publisher refers to the five Bs – bars, beauticians, barbers, butchers and bakeries. Editors and reporters should make just as much effort to stop at these places as they do at the city hall, cop shop or courthouse.

The importance of orienting staff is especially important in community newspapers that have limited resources and yet are responsible for publishing a living history of their communities.

The lesson is equally important for larger newsrooms in these days of cost-cutting. The all-too-familiar practice is to eliminate senior staff and thus their accompanying salaries. But is the best business model the best model for serving readers? Dollars are saved, but the institutional memory is lost. To exacerbate matters, owners frequently bring in new management unfamiliar with the community.

Preparation is the most important aspect of reporting a story. In similar vein, a solid orientation is the foundation for reporters – and thus newspapers – to create a meaningful relationship with their readers.