By Jim Pumarlo
There’s nothing more satisfying than looking at your product – whether it’s the print or digital edition – and saying to yourself, “We’ve got it covered. We’re connecting with our readers.” It matters little whether a newspaper has a circulation of a few hundred or several thousand. News organizations must connect with readers – their customers – if they are to remain relevant.
That means delivering the chicken dinner – and steak, too. No matter how big your operation, don’t forget the little things. And, no matter how small your newsroom, take the time to pursue the big projects, too.
I put news reports into two buckets: stories readers “should” read and stories they “like” to read. The two lists need not be mutually exclusive. The key is to regularly connect with your community. Here are a handful of ways.
Rethink your beats. Is your newsroom structured to monitor the things most important to your readers? Think beyond the standard public affairs beats of local government. For example, the local economy plays a huge part in people’s lives. If you regularly check in with the city council administrator, it’s equally wise to put other individuals and organizations on your list – the chamber of commerce, union leadership, government agencies that handle agriculture subsidies, bank presidents, workforce centers.
Go beyond the newsroom. Newsrooms regularly review everyday coverage and plan special projects. Expand the discussion. Include the entire newspaper family – representatives from all departments – as they likely represent a cross-section of your readers. Think of other individuals who have a pulse of the community – the United Way director, the CEO of the largest employer, the community ed director, the leader of a civic club, the morning coffee roundtable at the bakery, the “go to” volunteer who seems to be involved in every civic project.
Be inquisitive. Reporters are paid to ask questions. One reporter, recalling his editor’s nose for news, recalled, “If he saw a city crew digging up a sidewalk, he’d stop and ask, ‘What are you doing’? There’s a good chance other passers-by had the same question. Your staff can’t be everywhere, so turn all your employees into reporters. Instill in them a similar mind-set. Encourage them to bring you the news.
Don’t forget second-day stories. Scan any newspaper, and coverage is likely dominated by reports of meetings and events. Stories detail the facts behind an action, the quotes from the decision-makers detailing the “whys” of a particular decision. Remember, every action has a reaction. Second-day stories are just as important – sometimes more important – than the original report. Follow-up stories likely include new names and faces. You are expanding your network of news sources and, most importantly, your readership base.
Have a conversation. Connecting with readers requires having regular conversations. Explore all opportunities through your print edition and digital platforms. Follow social media channels, too. Take the time to answer questions; explain the dos and don’ts of your policies in a regular column.
In a nutshell, place as much emphasis on developing informal networks as you spend resources on your established networks. Making regular stops at the city hall, cop shop or courthouse are important, but think of all the other places where people regularly gather and share the news of their friends, neighbors and co-workers.
Drop in regularly, and editors will soon develop an informal group of correspondents. Some individuals will be waiting to pass along story ideas, especially if they wind up in the newspaper on occasion. The investment of your time will provide dividends for your content and your community.
Jim Pumarlo 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.