So we’re talking about those weekly meetings. How they almost necessarily shape the coverage you provide. Here’s the next point I want to make: If you don’t emerge from a weekly meeting as a team, you are doomed to produce three kinds of stories – fluff, process and breaking news.
OK, OK, let me define terms.
Fluff you know. These are stories about the bake sale to raise money for the cheerleading squad or a local who appears on a reality TV series. They are stories about an art show, the school fundraiser, a church picnic. All of this stuff may belong in your newspaper, but it’s fluff. It’s not going to fulfill your inner journalist, nor is it going to win you awards at year’s end.
Process refers to things that come from government machination. City Council meetings, planning commission workshops, school board gatherings. This stuff is important too. It’s a matter of public record. But it isn’t why you went to J school.
Breaking news will get your heart pumping. The scanner honks and next thing you know you are chasing ambulances. Covering breaking news is crucial to our existence and people want to know why there is smoke around the bend. It’s also a crutch.
What’s missing is context. Context, as you know, brings things into focus. It’s a bit hard to define as it relates to a newspaper story, but you know it when you see it. It’s the sports page story that delves into the need for more youth playing fields. It’s the news story that segues from yesterday’s car crash to efforts to make dead man’s curve safer. It’s not a regurgitation of standardized test scores, but rather an examination of how demographics in your community affect those scores.
Context requires forethought. The weekly news meeting is your best shot at accomplishing that. You might not know that the bridge planned over Municipal Creek could present a danger to the smelt that run underneath it, but the sports writer might. Your weekly meeting is a chance to triangulate, to see tthe story from different angles, to hear the voices of everyone in the room. …
As part of my analysis of how Wick papers handle their weekly meetings, I counted stories from several editions, noting whether stories were of the fluffy, process, breaking or contextual variety. When I had print editions and wasn’t merely looking online, I divided the number of stories that provided context by the number of issues read. I was hoping to see a whole number — that is, at least one context story per edition.
Suffice to say, those papers with the loosest, less-productive weekly meetings had fewer stories that provided context to the community. The most poorly planned papers tend to lean on breaking news. The plan is that “something will happen.” That something tends to be a drug bust or a car wreck or something that does not represent the fullness of life in that community. At least fluff and process stories take a little bit of planning to know what’s coming up.
Context is our unique value proposition. It can’t be had in 140 characters. You won’t get it from a city newsletter. The community newspaper is the only chance readers have at understanding – really understanding – what’s going on in their own backyard.
It begins with a weekly meeting that plots a course, discusses the angles and includes written expectations. Don’t abdicate the responsibility to provide context.