Wick Communications

Stop writing for bureaucrats

In Writing on June 23, 2016 at 2:11 pm

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Nobody reads the newspaper any more.

You probably hear some version of that around town, from the guy at the Rotary Club and even at family gatherings. Why would I pay for that? It’s a fair question. Why would you pay for a local newspaper when there is so much more entertaining stuff for free online?

The answer, as you know, is that we provide valuable, unique information you need in order to be a thoughtful citizen. We’re there to take photos of the Fourth of July parade. We cover the local elections you won’t see on television. And we keep an eye on government for you. That means we attend often dry meetings so you don’t have to.

That doesn’t mean we have to return to the office and write a play-by-play of that dreary meeting. … Not if we want anyone to read it. Wick newspapers — most newspapers, really — contain far too many dust-dry government process stories filled to the brim with government-speak and legalese.

Look, most of the meetings we cover are poorly attended for a reason. The fact that so many local journalists – including our own – regurgitate that junk a day or even a week later is probably the main reason we have trouble hanging on to readers.

We have to stop covering meetings for the sake of covering meetings and start telling people what the meetings mean.

This isn’t a new idea, but it hit me again as I tackled a stack of Wick newspapers on my desk. Most of them contain at least one story that goes something like this:

The State Agency Responsible for Something Arcane released a report on Friday outlining four steps the city’s Bureaucracy Committee must take before becoming eligible for federal grants pertaining to the issuance of permits for the purposes of …

You get the idea. …

In each instance, the writer meant well. Most are well versed in this minutiae and rightfully so. They are paid watchdogs. It’s important that you know this stuff. But only because it allows you to tell people what this stuff means to them.

Don’t write about the meeting. It’s a freeing concept. That the city council voted 5-2 to do something on Monday is unimportant. Instead, tell us what that action means to an individual in your community. Will Bob Jones finally get Wi-Fi as a result of the vote? What will it enable him to do? Could it mean more home Internet businesses?

In fact, don’t spend so much time at meetings. Nowhere is it written that the city reporter must go to every city council meeting. I hear the collective gasp. It is important that you know everything on the agenda and that you know what every bullet point means. It is not necessarily important that you sit through five hours of debate on all that crap. Because then you feel obligated to write a standard meeting story. Use the meetings you attend as a way to capture sources. Jot down names and numbers of those who speak passionately about the subject at hand. Introduce yourself to the city staff. But you are not a stenographer paid to get it all down.

Enough acronyms already. Oh my god, are our stories littered with them. If FERC and AFOG and WOTUS and RRAB (actual acronyms from our pages) were golden we would all be rolling in dough. Write around them in simple English. After first reference, in which the acronym is spelled out, feel free to call it the committee or the building board or whatever will make actual sense to an actual reader. Nothing says, “this is a boring story about the town’s bureaucracy” quite like a Scrabble board’s worth of meaningless letters.

Write about people. Write about people. Write about people.

Clay

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