Newsroom

Want to be read? make your stories readable

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My formula for framing newspaper content is pretty straightforward. If you expect to be read, you must present a blend of stories that people like to read and stories they should read. Under the should-read category, consider me a strong proponent of coverage of local government.
Another basic element to writing any story, whether hard news or a feature: Make it interesting. And specifically for public affairs reporting, make it relevant.

I hear the naysayers: "You can't force feed readers with news from the local city council, county board or school board."
You are correct. If you report a meeting as if recording the official minutes, the stories will go unread.
Here's one example of how to drive readers away. The newspaper will go unnamed. The story presumably appeared on the front page. It began:

"Following the 4:30 p.m. meeting of the Committee of the Whole, the City Council met Monday night at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall. With no public hearings, bids, petitions, or open forum scheduled for the evening, the council quickly moved through the initial items.
"The following consent agenda items were approved by the council:

"Motion approving the minutes from the April 3, 2017 Council and Committee of the Whole meetings.

"Motion approving licenses.

"Resolution amending the 2017 fee schedule to include refuse container sanitizing charges.

"Resolution closing out debt service and capital project funds and transferring the balances.

"Resolution declaring items as surplus property and authorizing their disposal.

"After passing the consent agenda and a brief overview of two, updated city ordinances, the next resolution was for the council to voice their support to the state legislature to increase the budget for the Local Government Aid (LGA) grant program."

With an introduction like that, I'm skeptical whether the city council members themselves spent more than a minute on the story, let alone the newspaper's broader readership.

The story unfortunately violated the No. 1 rule for reporting on meetings of any type: Avoid reporting interviews/meetings strictly in chronological order. Instead, prioritize items in terms of importance and relevance to readers. The rest of the above council report followed the agenda, point by point.

Solid reporting of meetings begins well before the gavel sounds. Here is one set of guidelines to make public affairs coverage more relevant to readers and to minimize complaints prompted by superficial coverage.

Tour the town: Names and places are at the heart of all stories. Familiarize yourself with the neighborhood where sidewalks are being proposed.
Seek other community voices: Governing bodies make the decisions, but the policies affect the entire community. Touch base with businesses that may be affected by a new sign ordinance.

Do your research: How is this riverfront plan different from the half-dozen others proposed by previous blue-ribbon commissions?
Write an advance: Major issues warrant an outline of what's at stake and the impact of a "yes" or "no" vote.
Pay attention to committees: The key discussions that shape the final outcome often take place in committees. Identify and cover these meetings when possible; at minimum, review the minutes.

Above all, interpret the actions of an elected body for your readers. What is the impact of a 5% hike in water rates for homeowners and businesses? What will new feedlot restrictions mean to the farmers in your county? How will a community navigate the change from neighborhood to centralized elementary schools?

Meetings should represent just one element of public affairs reporting. The final votes taken by a governmental body are usually the exclamation point on a long process that demands scrutiny along the way.

Make no mistake: Meaningful coverage of public affairs takes hard work and planning. But the rewards are a more enriched and dynamic process for setting public policy by the electorate and policy-makers alike. Substantive reporting of public affairs can be a win-win for your newspaper and your community.


Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of several books, including his most recent, "Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage for Beginning and Veteran Journalists." He can be reached at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at jim@pumarlo.com.