A guy named Mike Connell once told me, “readers don’t keep clips.” He was the editor of the Gainesville Times about a hundred years ago, when I was a spry and impressionable young reporter.
His point was that too often we reporters write in an incremental way. In so doing, we fail to bring readers up to speed on background we assume they already know.
Consider an example. Say that, for the last five years, your town council has been considering spending $2 million to develop a new downtown park. You reported the epiphany with bold headlines: “Mayor announces plans for new park.” Then you reported a thousand details across dozens of stories. Neighbors didn’t like it. Soccer coaches did. The town secured federal funding. The planning commission required a permit. It became an election issue. The council said it would name the park after the late football coach at the high school, and on and on. We all cover ongoing stories like this that progress over time.
Just don’t make the mistake of assuming that today’s readers were with you at the beginning or that they remember that story from Feb. 18, 2004, when you meticulously laid out the funding plan for the park. …
I’m not going to tell you that we at the Half Moon Bay Review always remember the background. In fact, the biggest pitfall of knowing your beat very well is forgetting that others do not. Sometimes, however, we get it right.
The photo with this post is an example of how you can provide the background in an incremental story in an attractive, bite-sized way. The story is about a super rich guy who bought the only access to a bucolic California beach. He closed the gate and in so doing ticked off a lot of committed folks. California law says the beaches belong to everyone, but it’s a little more murky when it comes to the land leading to the beach. This week we had a story about a state senator proposing a legislative solution. So I went through our archives and listed some of the significant milestones that had brought us to that point and presented it in a pullout box. Took 20 minutes.
We don’t make timelines with every story, of course. Sometimes what you need is a breezy explanatory couple of sentences, long about the fifth paragraph, that says something like, “Access to Martin’s Beach has been a leading concern of coastal conservationists since 2008, when the Deeney family sold 53 acres to Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. The new owner gated the private road leading to the beach and long-time fans of the surf spot rebelled. Since then, activists have filed two lawsuits over access to the beach and local authorities indicated they would not enforce trespassing laws at Martin’s Beach.” That would have worked too.
Just remember that readers don’t keep clips. Many in our own newsrooms don’t remember the ins and outs of long simmering stories. Help your readers navigate the timeline.