By Jim Pumarlo
Here’s an action item for your next newsroom meeting: Ask reporters to identify the community newsmakers. Better yet, bring a stack of newspapers from the last couple of months and circle the newsmakers receiving attention in words and photos.
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; the heads of key local commissions and task forces. And these folks probably appear with some regularity.
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. Their comments should be given proper notice.
At the same time, newspapers are shortchanging their readers – their customers – if they do not expand their definition of and explore the range of newsmakers. In other words, spend time to identify the players at the core of community conversations.
- A city council debates the merits of building a skateboard park. Reporters capture the flavor of the public hearings where proponents and opponents step to the microphone. The comments of the planning commission and city council members are recorded as they cast their final votes. But have you gone beyond the meetings? Have you taken the time to observe youths doing skateboard tricks on the downtown sidewalks, navigating their way among pedestrians? Have you asked business owners and pedestrians – some who may be annoyed by the youths, some who sympathize with the lack of a park – on the pluses and minuses of creating a park? Have you talked with the parents of the kids?
- A county board considers a conditional-use permit for an expanded feedlot operation. Reporters attend the public hearing, noting the debate and recording commissioner votes. But have you gone beyond the meetings? Have you toured the feedlot operation firsthand? Have you visited the neighbors to witness their concerns over odor and increased traffic?
Today’s challenging media landscape demands that editors and reporters thoroughly examine their coverage and ask the question: Are we relevant to our readers? Are our news columns dominated by the same set of newsmakers, or are we digging beneath the surface to identify the full cast of characters? Are we writing our stories for the individuals at the top, or tail end, of the news pyramid without giving proper attention to everyone else in the pyramid whose actions collectively represent the full dynamics of a story?
This exercise of scrutinizing coverage goes beyond examining the meetings of local governing bodies. Editors and reporters should regularly brainstorm all aspects of everyday coverage. It can be as easy as tracking down and inserting other voices beyond what is forwarded in a press release or presented at an event.
Consider a big-box retailer that opens as the anchor of a new strip mall on the edge of town. What’s the anticipated impact on the downtown shopping district? Will the discount store strengthen the city as a regional retail center? Gaining these perspectives is just as important as recording the welcoming comments of the mayor at the grand opening. In addition, the stories provide many new faces and names beyond the traditional newsmakers.
Here’s a challenge the next time your staff is brainstorming coverage for a story of community significance. Reporters are certain to rattle off the usual lineup of individuals to solicit perspectives. Some may be appropriate and, indeed, mandatory to contact. But don’t adjourn your session until you’ve come up with at least a handful of individuals who rarely, if ever, are mentioned in your newspaper. Make it a priority to seek their opinions.
Expanding your bucket of newsmakers is all about going beyond the story that is served on the platter. Make no mistake, digging beneath the surface takes legwork – and produces long-term benefits. The enriched coverage is more interesting, and you’ll likely pick up some new readers.
Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on Community Newsroom Success Strategies. His newest book is “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage for Beginning and Veteran Journalists.” He also is author of “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in a Small-Town Newspaper.” He can be contacted at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.