By Jim Pumarlo
A reader questions your policy for reporting suicides. A retailer challenges your staff to produce timely and relevant business news. A reporter is confronted for printing a press release charging a candidate with unfair campaign practices without contacting the accused for a response. A family member gets emotional over publication of an accident photo.
These scenarios plus many more are excellent topics for newsroom discussion. Most editors will likely respond directly to the individuals who raise the questions.
But how many newsrooms explain their policies and operations to readers on a regular basis? A column by the editor or publisher should be a fixture if you want to connect with readers.
Fresh off a contentious election season, this is an excellent time to review and identify ways to communicate with readers. Election coverage always prompts questions from readers on everything from candidate announcements to the rollout of press releases to treatment of letters to the editor.
My recommendation: Be on the offense. First, don’ let questions fester. Respond immediately to individual inquiries. Second, communicate with your entire readership. If the question is on the mind of one person, it’s likely piqued the interest of others, too.
Educating readers on a variety of topics should be a priority. What are your guidelines for wedding, engagements and obituaries? Do you publish photos of all proclamations – why or why not? What circumstances warrant publishing the salaries of public officials? Which public records do you regularly monitor and publish?
The lineup of issues is endless.
A newspaper’s role as a government watchdog provides ample opportunities for initiating conversations with readers as well. Why should readers care about changes in a state’s open meeting law? Why does a newspaper demand the names of finalists for key public officials? How does a proposed privacy law threaten the disclosure of information vital to citizens’ everyday lives?
Columns are also a great tool to preview special projects and explain everyday coverage. Newspapers devote a great deal of time and talent reporting on local governing bodies; a column might educate readers why your staff cannot be everywhere and why an advance can be more important than attending a meeting. Crime and courts coverage, by its nature, draws a chorus of detractors; the hows and whys of your process are ready-made content.
Three points are important when detailing newspaper policies and operations:
- Have the same person – preferably the editor – communicate policies. It’s OK to acknowledge differences of opinion among staff, but one person should be the liaison to readers. Be certain to share policies with all newspaper employees. Remember those on the front line – the receptionist – who will likely be the first to field a question or complaint. Receptionists should direct inquiries to the appropriate person.
- Be open to feedback and criticism. Policies, to be effective, must have a foundation of principles. They also should be subject to review and tweaking, depending on specific circumstances.
- Don’t be afraid to accept mistakes or errors in judgment. Saying “we erred” will go a long way toward earning respect and trust from readers.
Talking with individuals inside and outside your newspaper family is an important aspect of developing policies. Connecting with as many people as possible guarantees thorough examination of the various perspectives. The more opinions received, the stronger the policies will be.
Editors and publishers still must make the final decision. But readers will appreciate that policies are not made on a whim.
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.