Wick Communications

Getting real people in

In journalism on February 21, 2013 at 3:41 pm

Real-People-1One pervasive problem with newspapers all over the country (and I suspect all over the world) is what I would call “The Official Effect.” It is the tendency of reporters to seek out someone with a title and ignore the multitudes who are merely affected by whatever change is deemed newsworthy. … You know, unimportant people like our readers.

It’s a natural compulsion, but it tends to crowd out the very people we are trying to attract to our party – everyday readers who are not the mayor or the school principal. We need to include these voices too. And I have some ideas to make that happen.

  • Get out of the office. Your Rolodex (alright, your digital phonebook) is filled with the numbers of officialdom. It has its place, but what if you need, say, the mother of a kindergartener to add color to a school budgeting story? You have to go to the line of cars waiting to pick up little Johnny and adorable Sandy. Real people are out there. Go find them. Get up. Walk out the door. This may be the most important tip I can give you.
  • Run a sidebar of quotes. Got a story about the city enacting some new law? Writing about the school budget priorities? Jot down some quotes during the public input session and run those four or five quotes alongside your story. Get some mugshots to make it even more attractive. …
  • Sit in the stands. There is nothing magical about the press table at the high school basketball game. Or the press box at the football stadium. Eschew the press area and mingle with the mommas and daddies. You are guaranteed to hear things that may make a story next week.
  • While you’re at the game, quote players not coaches. Few people in the world are as predictable as high school football coaches. Ask the punter what he thought of the game as a change of pace.
  • Work from a coffee shop. Not every day. Just once in a while, when you have a chance. If you have a laptop, plug it in at Starbucks and talk to the schmoe sitting next to you. Ask the barista if she has heard about the repaving project. Look at the community bulletin board on the wall. Pick up the competition paper in the recycling bin. You’ll be surprised the things you learn.
  • Attend a service organization luncheon. It’s true, the mayor and the police chief are there, but so is the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker.
  • Volunteer for something. Meeting new people will automatically expand your list of sources.
  • Mine your archives. It’s easier now that they are online, but you can find contacts in those dusty old books too. If you are writing a story about the 20th anniversary of a local business, look back and see who managed the joint when your paper wrote that new business feature. What does he think of the longevity of the business?

And these are just the things that occur to me off the top of my head. I’m sure many of you have your own ideas. Share them here.

— Clay

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  1. Great stuff. Get out of the office, do the unexpected and go someplace new and different. Put your ear to the street where the people are and listen. Your next story is just around the corner.
    I carry a simple camera with me everywhere I go. A Sony sure-shot, its six years old. I can grab a photo or flip the switch and do a video interview. In fact, I rarely use a digital voice recorder, I use the camera. It’s nice to see the reactions when going back to get quotes.
    Sometimes I pull those together with photos and a story and make shorts for the Web site too.
    I can’t say what handy simple tool its been for me to use. Even if I have my D7 with me I’ll carry the Sony. The little camera is non-threatening and most people don’t even know I am running a recording with it.
    I have to admit that I NEVER sit at a press table. I hate them, I call them a grenade pile. I will always be on the court or in the stands. It’s were the best stuff is happening.
    Just get out of the office and do what a reporter should be doing, reporting on the community around them.

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