Steve Gray is a former publisher of the Christian Science Monitor and a former director of the API’s Newspaper Next project, which some of you will remember. He began at newspapers much like our own. His first job in the business was as a darkroom tech at his family’s newspaper, the Monroe (Mich.) Evening News.
These days he keeps a blog called MediaReset. Last week, he offered an idea that would be an interesting one for us to try. Those of you looking for a new editorial project in the second quarter, might consider it.
Gray says in the early 1990s he was concerned about some small-town shenanigans in Monroe and he hit on an idea.
I started to think about who really pulled the strings in our community. Who operated behind the scenes? Who could apply pressure or persuasion and get things done — or stop them?
I didn’t really know, although I had some ideas. I’d heard that this or that individual was quietly powerful or influential, but the only people who were routinely visible as decision-makers were the elected officials. … We came up with the idea of doing it with a survey. We decided that the best way to conduct it was to send it to a list of people we were certain had power or influence, asking them to name others who did. …
Gray identified several institutions (education, industry, development…) and then sent a mailed survey to people who reporters thought might have knowledge of the “influencers.” Today, of course, we have other means of surveying folks. Personally, though, I like the idea of a targeted survey. I might send out a Surveymonkey survey to 50 people — chamber types, elected officials, school principals, etc. If I were doing it, I would allow people to do it anonymously. In my town, I could imagine the same few names coming up again and again.
What do you do with it then? Well, you could run features on each of the behind-the-scenes movers and shakers. You could write about what it means to essentially have a shadow government of people who may be very well-meaning. You could report on whether those people are representative of your community in terms of gender, money and race.
It’s just another good idea. Tell me yours.