Wick Communications

Following up with context

In Writing techniques on January 12, 2017 at 2:33 pm

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Here is one of the most evergreen and ever-true complaints about newspapers: To often they hit a news story and then run in the other direction. What became of that family displaced in the fire? What ever happened to that development plan? What is next for the planned water pipeline?

We’re pretty good at showing up for the news; we’re not so good and following up after the crowd leaves for the next shiny thing.

One of the reasons we shy away is because we don’t understand the context ourselves. In order to go back to that forgotten development plan, you might have to write about a complex series of events that you or your predecessor covered extensively five years ago but haven’t given a second thought in months or even years. In my shop, one such old news story is called “Big Wave.”

Big Wave is a development plan that proposed marrying housing for developmentally disabled adults with a business park to fund it all. Proponents say it’s a progressive idea and a chance to get housing for people who have a hard time getting it; opponents say that is all hogwash and a ruse to build a for-profit industrial park. Whatever the truth, the story has been in — and out of — our paper for years. It has been heard at state planning boards and local coffee shops. But not for a while. It’s been dormant for a year or more and we let it kind of recede from our collective conscience. …

Enter Kaitlyn Bartley, a relatively new reporter at The Half Moon Bay Review. She had never heard of the project until a reader emailed wondering what was happening with the development. She was able to craft a good update that is one of our most-read stories this week.

The key to setting up a story like this, one that has been dormant a while, is a simple nut graph. Think of it as a lede that doesn’t necessarily have to be the first or second or even fifth graph of your story. It simply sums up in simple language what this thing is and how we got here. It probably helped Kaitlyn, in a way, that she was starting from scratch. Sometimes veteran reporters know a story so well that they forget to set it up for people who don’t live this stuff.

Here is Kaitlyn’s third paragraph:

The proposed development has been disputed and appealed by some in the community and environmental groups for at least 15 years and has undergone numerous changes. Concerns have included increased traffic around the development, its divergence from the rural feel of the Coastside, and a lack of available water. Proponents say it will benefit the developmentally disabled adults who will live and work at the site, as well as the broader community.

And onward she went.

I highly recommend returning to big stories. If people filled public meetings for a development’s approval, you know they are interested in seeing it through.

Clay

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