Wick Communications

Counting the names

In Writing techniques on February 21, 2013 at 4:02 pm

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Here’s an idea I got from Jim Pumarlo. He is an author and consultant to community newspapers like ours.

Get out, say, your last five newspapers and a Highlighter. Now highlight every name in your paper. Some names will undoubtedly appear only once, the focus of some feature perhaps. But dollars to donuts several names will stick out. I bet you have quoted the mayor, the school superintendent, the high school basketball coach, the planning commissioner or several other dignitaries several times over the period.

That’s not entirely a bad thing. After all, these folks are leaders in your community. You can’t very well ignore the mayor. … But you can overexpose him.

Pumarlo asks to envision your readership as a pyramid. Consider the “usual suspects” as the top of the pyramid and your regular folk as filling the wide base. Now: Does it make sense that you disproportionately quote those lofty individuals at the very top of society while ignoring the views of the many people who form the bedrock of the community?

You might say that your everyday citizen needs to hear from the decision makers. That is true. However, it’s equally true that the decision makers need to hear from your everyday readers, and that’s your job, too. …

This, by the way, is a problem in every community newspaper I’ve ever seen, including my own. It is partially attributable to the way we structure our beats. If you have a “city government” reporter, she will feel duty-bound to seek out the top city administrator every time she writes about something new in the municipality. Your “schools” reporter will seek out the principals, and so on. The overemphasis is inherent in the terminology.

But what if you had a “growth” and a “families” and a “leisure” reporter? Would they be less shackled to the usual sources? I think so.

I’m not necessarily suggesting you restructure your beats; I’m just asking you to take out that Highlighter and your newspapers and see what the trends tell you. Then resolve to get more “real people” into your stories by hook or by crook.

Clay

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  1. I am huge believer in getting the ‘Joe’s’ names and views from our community into my writing. I like the idea of the pyramid as control point. In my sports column this week I decided to name drop. Readers love names and can associate personally. But I made sure to mention people who never get noticed. I also did three community profiles (doing) more for an upcoming edition. One was a elderly woman who’s at all the basketball games, another a ticket taker for 30 years at a high school and the other a kid who does PA announcing on the reservation.
    Writing my sports stories I am always on the look out for those players who are not the stars, but contribute something special for that night. Parents love it and it helps paint a team picture.
    I always want to names to have an action to associated with them (99 percent are positive). With six high schools and a college to cover equity is the rule. Names help association and keeps everybody reading because there’s always someone new and different who could get a mention. And you know those are getting clipped and put in scrape books.
    There’s more in a name than meets the eye.

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