Need a newsroom resolution for 2016? How about reclaiming some expertise?
This business of choosing resolutions for the New Year requires some strategic thought.
First, I need to select an area of my life that requires attention. (There are many.) And second, it helps if I select an area I actually can influence. (That winnows the field a bit.)
How about this one, editors and news directors:
Resolved: In 2016, your newsroom will increase its expertise.
It a resolution that certainly fits the first criteria: In the wake of years of diminishing resources, many newsrooms are depending more than ever on a staff of generalists to cover the news.
It also fits the second. Back to that in a minute.
Gone are the days when most staffs had experts on environment, courts, politics, finance, labor. Even coverage of education is more likely to highlight a school or program while failing to raise larger issues of how our children are learning.
My first newspaper job was on a rewrite desk (using something called a typewriter), and I sometimes doubled as a general assignment reporter. I remember the feeling of being over my head when the boss sent me to interview an award-winning expert in some field of research, or to fill in when the municipal court reporter couldn’t cover two trials at once.
My stories were accurate, but far from insightful. Certainly not deep.
I lacked expertise.
Now, more than 40 years later, many newsrooms have very little expertise. They assign most reporters according to the needs of the day—to business stories, medical press conferences, court cases -- no matter whether those reporters know the difference between a presentment and an indictment.
Left to proceed on its current course, this trend toward generalists is bad news for those who hope news organizations have a future. Why would your communities continue to rely on news sources that lack expertise on issues as crucial to our future as climate change, immigration reform, health care economics and criminal justice?
But how, you ask, can we do anything else when newsrooms live with this reality:
You have fewer people on the staff than you had last year, and you’ll almost certainly have fewer still in the years to come.
Yes, newsrooms live with that reality. But here’s another reality I wish more newsrooms would act upon:
You get to choose what you cover.
Instead of chasing what everyone has, why not chase what you alone have?
Why not devote most of your coverage to areas in which you develop expertise?
Some newsrooms are doing it.
Think about it. So much of the news you produce is everywhere. Readers and viewers forget where they first saw it, if they remember the coverage at all.
Why do newsrooms continue to cover so many forgettable stories—the crimes, the incremental government machinations, the soon-to-be countered medical theories? Is it out of a sense of responsibility? A romantic commitment to producing “a record” for our community?
Those days are over—not because communities don’t need a record, but because newsrooms that are 25 percent of their former size simply cannot produce one.
But they could produce coverage that is important, and crucial to the life of the community—if they make some choices.
Newsrooms that are making those choices refer to them with different words. Some call them “franchise topics.” You can call them “areas of focus,” stories you “own,” or “coverage you are known for.” All have one thing in common:
They become the newsroom’s first priority. And because they represent the newsroom’s commitment to cover fewer topics, but cover them deeply, they allow the staff to produce coverage that embraces an issue’s complexity and engages the community in a far more meaningful conversation.
Jeff Sonderman, Deputy Director at the American Press Institute, and his colleagues have been working with newsrooms to identify "franchise" topics in their markets. He also has been tracking results -- and they defy the notion that in-depth coverage can't find an audience anymore. Sonderman says newsrooms that correctly identify areas of coverage that are important to their communities see an increase in readership and engagement; people not only consume the coverage, they share it.
That's been the experience of Adam Neal, Managing Editor of the Stuart (FL) News, one of the newsrooms that worked with API to refocus the staff's coverage on franchise topics. For the News, one topic was the Indian River Lagoon, and the effort is working. Not only can Neal point to metrics that say the community is more engaged, he also can tell stories of legislators who are addressing the lagoon’s issues with government funding, and members of the community who call to say they appreciate the coverage.
The coverage, which has its own landing page on the newsroom’s website, TCPalm.com, features stories ranging from how Floridians use the lagoon for recreation to the threats posed by pollution and other environmental hazards. Neal says the News selected the lagoon as one of its franchise topics because it represents such an important economic driver for the region, and real issues threatened the lagoon’s health.
The site, and the newsroom’s coverage, reflect expertise—something the staff was able to develop once it decided to redirect its energy away from the routine, toward a smaller number of important stories.
And what’s been the reaction of the community to the absence of those routine process stories?
Not one phone call, Neal says.
This is not to suggest that you should stop attending government meetings and keeping an eye on those expected to protect the public trust. But there’s a difference between keeping an eye on public officials and dutifully producing process stories that do little to help the community understand and participate in their government.
Monitor the meetings as best you can. Neal says the News still has beat reporters, but they now “manage” beats instead of producing stories on them every day. They still produce some daily stories, but their focus is on enterprise. And when it’s decided that a less important story merits coverage, a freelancer is assigned.
The Stuart News is not the only news organization focusing a significant percentage of its remaining resources on a smaller number of high-impact issues. Some newsrooms are emphasizing investigative reporting. Like those taking the franchise topic approach, they are committed to resisting the temptation of covering the routine and diluting their efforts. And as a result, some are producing important—and impactful—work.
API's Sonderman points to another benefit -- the positive impact on the newsroom. After years of experiencing the constraining effects of downsizing, he says focusing the staff on coverage that goes deep and has impact can be inspiring, reminding them what their journalism is capable of achieving.
If you’re interested in resolving to focus on fewer issues, and producing more deep, impactful coverage, here are a few suggestions:
Start by “reporting” the story. Don’t start this process by asking your readers and viewers “what they want.” Newsroom file cabinets are crammed with surveys that asked that question and got nowhere. Learn what the community most needs from you by exploring the question like a journalist would. It's crucial, Sonderman says, to stop making coverage decisions by gathering the same staff members to revisit the ground you've discussed again and again. Instead, work the story. Gather metrics and any other data you can find about the community’s behavior. Observe people. Interview them. Ask questions that reveal what people are struggling with, talking about, spending their time on. Ask parents about their children, ask women about their work, ask people you never cover about their lives. This might take some weeks. But when you’re done, you’ll have information that can guide your next decisions.
Make choices. For years now, newsrooms have been trying to identify work they will stop doing. What a depressing—and largely unsuccessful—process. How about this approach: Armed with your research about your community, identify areas of coverage you want to spend most of your time and resources on. Maybe you choose economic development, local schools, the impact of racism, the home NFL team. Sonderman urges journalists to stop thinking about their coverage in terms of events -- meetings we cover, games we attend. Remember, you’re choosing areas of coverage, issues that you have determined are important to the health of your community, and that matter to your readers and viewers.
Commit resources (and then try things). This is the hard part. First, assign people to these coverage areas—and then assign more. The point is to make an unmistakable commitment to building expertise and going deep with it. One reporter might do good work, but it’s likely to take a long time to have impact. Think of it this way: Assign eight reporters to eight beats, and you’ll get eight workmanlike efforts. Assign eight reporters to three beats, and you’ll produce work with depth and, maybe, impact. But throwing a lot of people at an area doesn't guarantee success. Sonderman urges newsrooms to invest some time and thoughtfulness into devising new approaches for the coverage -- and then encourage those reporters to take a few risks.
Increase your use of “expert” commentary. Even with your commitment of resources, the issues you focus on can benefit from additional scrutiny. Every community has academics and people in both the private and public sector who have expertise in the topics you are focusing on. Sure, they have self-interested points-of-view. So what? You’re identifying them as “experts,” not journalists. Why not devote significant amounts of space—formerly devoted to those process stories—to letting them discuss the issues your reporters are exploring?
Explain, explain, explain. At a time when most journalists are over-simplifying our nation’s most complex issues, fight the trend. Issues like immigration reform, healthcare, economics and domestic terrorism are complicated, period. To treat them as easy-to-understand—or too complicated to cover at all—is counterproductive to informing the public debate and enabling any eventual solutions. So instead of “dumbing them down,” how about making them comprehensible? Let those “experts” help you. Vox.com is making a business out of explaining complicated issues. You can, too.
But first, you have to reclaim some expertise. How about resolving that in 2016, you will get it.