Customer service is job one for newsrooms, too

by | Sep 1, 2012 | Recent Writing | 0 comments

The Inlander/September 2012

Customer service is the byword as businesses navigate today’s challenging economy. At newspapers, that means paying attention to details in all aspects of the operation – everything from prompt service for advertisers to efficient turnaround on submitted news briefs to on-time newspaper delivery.

But is your newsroom also focused on the customer? Translated, are you writing for your readers? When have you last had that discussion? In today’s fragmented media landscape – as newspapers face fierce competition for market share – the conversation about serving readers should be center stage.

Consider a city council, faced with pressing budget problems, that raises a variety of fees including water and sewer rates. The newspaper dutifully reports that residential bills will go up 5 percent, and commercial/industrial rates will jump 7 percent. That’s unfortunately the end of story and end of discussion in many newspapers. Yet there’s more to the story if the newspaper truly wants to provide a service for its customers – the readers. A more meaningful story would translate the percentages into numbers. Household water bills are likely to increase $10 a month, Main Street businesses $30, and factories $100. If the council doesn’t raise the issue, ask the question whether financial assistance is available for hardship cases.

Reporting of local public affairs offers the greatest opportunity for deciphering what the actions mean for your readers.

A school board proposes a levy referendum; how will it affect the various categories of property taxes in real dollars – homeowners, businesses, farms?

A city council orders sidewalks in all neighborhoods; how much should homeowners expect to pay, and do they have options to pay the full amount or spread the assessment over a number of years? Can they appeal the order? If so, how?

Writing for the customer is not limited to public affairs, however. Newsrooms should regularly brainstorm ideas in all areas of their coverage. In many cases, that means not simply accepting a press release verbatim without seeking other voices for the story.

For example:

  • A town’s leading employer announces major layoffs. A brief press release, sent from out-of-town corporate headquarters, cites a soft market for the downsizing. Among the questions to address, if you’re writing for the customer: What’s the reaction from community leaders? Are displaced workers eligible for unemployment or training assistance? The local facility is one of many in the corporate holdings; is there concern that work performed locally will be transferred to another site and the local plant will be closed?
  • The public safety department issues its annual report with all sorts of statistics from accidents to burglaries to violent crimes. The newspaper carries the summary, citing a few of the more noteworthy statistics. Among the questions to address, if you’re writing for the customer: What are the hot spots for serious accidents; is the report a springboard for an editorial calling for additional traffic control measures? Are particular neighborhoods victim to a rash of burglaries? Do any patterns warrant a review of police patrol shifts? Are neighborhood watch programs being considered?

In simplest terms, writing for the customer means not writing for the sources.

I recall when a reporter challenged my editing of a city council story. Her chief complaint? I had pared down the comments – even eliminated some remarks – that occurred during the council’s deliberation prior to the vote. She made it quite clear that it was important to include a comment from everyone, even if they were duplicative. In her words, a comprehensive summary of the discussion from the council members – the sources – was at the foundation of her credibility with the council.

Don’t get me wrong. Reporters should not shortchange what the sources have to say in any story. But reporters must be equally aware that most actions produce a reaction. Your stories are incomplete without exploring and explaining the impact on the customers. Taking that step ensures a more thorough, informative – and often a more interesting – story. You’ll also be doing a service for your sources and your customers.