Wick Communications

Is Charlie calling? … Again?

In journalism on March 31, 2011 at 4:42 pm

As I write this, one of our reporters at the Half Moon Bay Review is on the phone with a guy I’ll call Charlie, because that’s his name.

Charlie is a local guy with a problem. He says that a contractor, while making improvements to a home up the hill, rechanneled stormwater so that it rushes on to his land. He says the change has caused a landslide on his property and that county officials are callous to his predicament and that the offending contractor says he would charge $15,000 to fix the problem he created.

I know all this, because I talked to Charlie, too. Charlie spoke to our reporter and, when he didn’t hear what he wanted to hear, he called me. When he still didn’t read the story he wanted in the next day’s paper, he called the reporter back. Charlie is starting to get on my nerves.

Now, Charlie may have a point. He may have been wronged by the contractor. It may even be a story for the newspaper. But you have to balance your own open-door policy and the fact that you want to hear from readers with story ideas against the fact that you probably have bigger fish to fry. You can’t let one really squeaky wheel distract you from stories that, in your judgment, are of greater interest to more people.

So what do we do the next time Charlie calls? …

Dealing with needy readers is an art. Gone are the days when the gruff editor simply screamed at the Charlies of the world and slammed down the phone. We can’t afford to dismiss our readers any more. So here’s what I suggest the next time a guy named Charlie calls your newsroom.

  • Hear him out. Sometimes people just want to be heard. They feel like the planning department (or the police or the U.S. senator or whomever else they called) just wouldn’t listen. So listen. Sometimes 15 minutes on the phone one time beats cutting someone off only to have him call every number he can find for the newspaper.
  • If you make a promise, keep it. Don’t tell the caller you’ll look into it if you have no intention of looking into it. If you don’t think Charlie’s complaint is a story, just say so.
  • Explain why you don’t have time to chase down neighbor disputes and other parochial concerns. Tell him what you are working on. Sometimes Charlie will even agree his story isn’t such a big deal in relation to the murder across town, the budget impasse that threatens school programs and an all-state baseball team. Ask Charlie what he thinks will happen if you call that contractor. If he acknowledges that the story will devolve into a he said/she said kind of thing, you’ve gone a long way toward explaining why you won’t do the story.
  • And be nice. We’ve all had occasion to call someone with a complaint. It’s really maddening when the voice on the other end is dismissive and arrogant. Tell Charlie you’re really sorry to hear what he’s going through. Sometimes that’s all he wants to hear.

And sometimes none of this works. Occasionally, you have to put your foot down and tell Charlie you’ve considered his story idea and considered it again and still have better things to do. But try a little tenderness first. After all, having interested readers who think you can help isn’t the worst problem to have.

Clay

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