How are you performing? Check in with readers

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

The Inlander/March 2012

When is the last time a reader challenged the accuracy of a story? Or complained that a headline was misleading and sensational? Or charged that a major advertiser was given preferential treatment in a story? Or said a video posted on the website was selectively and unfairly edited?

Newsrooms collect and translate hundreds of facts on a regular basis. Some information is received firsthand, and some findings come secondhand. Some facts are immediately posted on the Web, and some are included in comprehensive reports in print editions. Other items are part of the churn of police reports, obituaries, weddings and engagements, and government meetings.

Through all of these stories, one tenet governs the work of newsrooms: accuracy. If the facts are wrong, the newspaper loses its credibility.

In the pursuit of fairness and accuracy, newspapers should consider implementing a “fact check” sheet. Individuals who either are sources or subjects of news stories are an excellent judge of how editors and reporters are doing their jobs. So why not ask them directly?

The process can be straightforward. Select a couple of stories from each edition and send a copy to an individual who either was contacted or who might have been identified in each story. Then ask a series of questions. For example: Are the facts in the story/photo accurate, including spelling of names and addresses? Were quotes used in proper context? In general, do you consider this newspaper to be accurate?

While you’re at it, you can ask other general questions about your news content. What are the most interesting sections of this newspaper? Do other topics or issues warrant attention? Are any “voices” or constituencies lacking in coverage?

A “fact check” is an excellent tool to ask additional questions about your newspaper beyond strictly the news product. For example: What’s your primary source of news? What other media outlets/websites do you routinely depend on for information? Would you pay to view online content? Can we improve upon customer service in any department?

Newspapers should regularly check in with their customers to see how they are doing their jobs. And there are other avenues to do so:

“Ask the editors” night – Open the telephone lines for an evening to let readers ask anything on their minds. Top-level managers from the various departments should be on hand with the goal of answering as many questions on the spot as possible. If you don’t have the answer, take down the customer’s name and telephone number and respond within 24 hours.

“Brown bag’ lunches – Convene a series of conversations with readers. Buy your customers lunch in exchange for their feedback. If you’re soliciting comments on overall content, be sure your participants are representative of your community’s demographics. Or maybe tailor the session and its participants to a specific content area – for example, agriculture, business or youth coverage.

Reader boards – Organize a board comprised of readers with rotating membership. The individuals meet with the editor on a monthly basis and offer everything from editorial ideas to a critique of newspaper content.

Of all these options, the “fact check” is most useful as a regular connection with readers. Be sure to vary your selection of stories from routine news briefs and meeting reports to in-depth series and features. Select content from the print edition and website alike. If applicable, it may be worthwhile to send the same story to two different individuals to see if they offer similar perspectives on the report. Share the feedback with the individual writers whose stories were selected as well as with the entire news staff and other departments.

The questionnaire results will let you what readers like and dislike, and challenge you to improve areas where your paper isn’t meeting expectations. The goal is to solicit feedback from a range of readers – new and longtime residents, young and old, men and women – and from a geographic representation of your markets.

If readers offer their honest, straightforward feedback, editors and reporters will strive for a stronger product.  These ‘fact checks” earn newspapers high marks for showing concern about accuracy, fairness and breadth of coverage. The comments often can prompt a follow-up phone call and a fruitful conversation beneficial to both the reader and editor.

Editors also should seize the opportunity to explain to readers in a column what you’ve heard and what steps will be taken to address the concerns. If readers’ expectations exceed what you can practically accomplish, explain that, too. You may not get everyone to agree, but your goal is to help them understand your decisions and operations.