Here’s a periodic action item for every newspaper: The exercise can be quite revealing in evaluating how you are connecting with various audiences. It is even more important in today’s fractured media landscape and as everyday interaction can still be challenging in the aftermath of the pandemic.
For starters, ask reporters to identify the community newsmakers in a brainstorming session. Better yet, divvy up newspapers from the last several weeks and circle the names and faces in the stories and photos.
Then identify those folks who appear with some regularity. Several individuals are likely to be on the list, no matter the community: for example, the mayor and city council president; the superintendent and school board chair; the county’s chief administrator and the county board chair; local legislators.
You get the drift. Newsrooms by and large do a commendable job of writing for the source, especially when it comes to public affairs reporting. Public officials speak, and their statements are recorded. They issue press releases, which often are published verbatim. They are fixtures in many photo ops.
Make no mistake: What public officials say and do warrant notice.
At the same time, newspapers are shortchanging their readers – their customers – if they do not expand their definition of newsmakers in community conversations. That means exploring and talking with all the players – those affected by the news as well as those making the news.
For example, consider a city council debate over whether to provide tax incentives for a big-box retailer to anchor a new strip mall on the edge of town. Broaden your reporting beyond the required public hearings. Will the discount store strengthen the city as a regional retail center? What’s the anticipated impact on downtown merchants? Investigate the experiences of similar developments in other towns. Do a man-on-the-street interview. Why should this commercial development receive special treatment when others have not?
Seeking and reporting these additional perspectives will enrich the community conversation on this important decision. The extra research will provide new names and faces.
Equally important in this exercise is examining daily routines. It’s only natural that content often is framed by your regular connections, How often do you get out of the office to connect with folks firsthand? Do you take the same route to and from work? Do you eat lunch at the same restaurant with the same friends? Do you attend the morning coffee roundtable at a local cafe? Do you belong to any service clubs? Do you ever talk with the individual or company who is the focus of a government proceeding?
Try this for starters. Connect with a new face – someone beyond your usual network –once a week, every other week, each month. These new contacts will appreciate the outreach, and you’ll be surprised how conversations may enrich news content.
Editors and reporters must constantly ask: Are we relevant to our community? Are print and digital platforms dominated by the same set of newsmakers, or are we looking beneath the surface to identify the full cast of characters?
Scrutinizing coverage goes beyond examining the meetings and decisions of local governments. Routinely brainstorm all aspects of everyday coverage. It can be as easy as tracking down and inserting other voices beyond those provided in a press release or presented at an event.
Invite other members of the newspaper family to assist in the conversation; employees across your operations often represent a cross-section of the community. As you tackle a bigger news project, convene a roundtable of selected residents and solicit their ideas.
Expanding your bucket of newsmakers is all about going beyond the story served on a platter. Indeed, digging beneath the surface takes legwork – and it produces long-term benefits. The enhanced coverage is more interesting and relevant, and you’ll likely pick up some new readers.
Jim Pumarlo is former editor of the Red Wing (Minn.) Republican Eagle. He writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be reached at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.