Three ways to serve up better dailies

Back when I was doing my communications gig for Independence Blue Cross in Philadelphia, I received a phone call one morning from a reporter who was playing catch-up on a new state insurance regulation.

“I’ll be happy to explain it to you,” I said, “but be patient. It’s a little involved.”

About two minutes into my explanation, the reporter interrupted me.

“That’s okay,” he said. “That’s way too complicated. I’ll get something else for tomorrow.”

Another story falls victim to media bias.

No, not the liberal political bias that journalists so often are accused of having. This was another, perhaps more disturbing bias. It’s called:Production Bias.

Simply defined, Production Bias holds that if a story can’t be done in a day, we won’t do it.

I first heard the concept of Production Bias in 2001 when I was working with Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach, authors of The Elements of Journalism, and they were developing a newsroom curriculum based on the book. Production Bias was among a number of terms identified to help journalists understand that the first step in mitigating a bias is to acknowledge its existence.

I joined them in a number of newsrooms where we asked the staff if Production Bias existed. Without fail, the journalists said yes.

And let’s be honest: it’s more prevalent today than when I got that impatient reporter’s call more than a decade ago. In fact, in some newsrooms it’s mutated: If the story can’t be done in two hours, we won’t do it.

Am I exaggerating? Sure. But spend a few hours scanning the web sites of news organizations around the country, and tell me how many meaty profiles, in-depth analyses and just plain surprising stories you find.

Clearly, a whole lot of good stories are not being done.

Could this have anything to do with our disappearing audiences?

We’re all familiar with the changes that have contributed to the spread of Production Bias. Less staff to do more work. The 24/7 news cycle. Publishing on multiple platforms. The demands of multimedia.

But the biggest reason, I’d suggest, dates back to a notion that held forth long before we were tweeting or blogging or gathering multimedia.

Our newsrooms are preoccupied with filling.

Fill the show. Fill the book. We can’t do that story because we need everyone to help us fill.

One newspaper editor told me that several years ago, he flat-out told his staff to stop worrying about filling the book. “I want everyone, every day, to write for the front page,” he said. “If we do that, we’ll have plenty of good stories left over to fill the book.”

I asked him how it’s going. Slowly, he said. A few more good stories are getting done each day. “Everyone says they want to take risks, but they don’t,” the editor said. “They find a great deal of safety from filling the book.”

Filling is a hard habit to break.

But we’ve got to get started. How about this modest goal: if our news reports are going to be dominated by one-day stories, let’s make them better. Even memorable.

How?

Here are three ideas, inspired by a handful of print and broadcast stories that were reported, written and produced in one day.

The first story was reported in 2009 by Boyd Huppert at KARE in Minneapolis. Watch and then we’ll talk.

Idea Number 1. Frame the story tightly. Think about where this story was reported and during what time frame. One Checkers, one shift. I can think of many similar, but less powerful, stories done by reporters who visited multiple businesses over several days. Stories, no matter how quickly they are reported, benefit from a well-defined, tight frame.

David Barstow, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter at the New York Times, says that the tighter the frame you put on your exploration of an issue or event, the deeper you can go. His tick-tock on nine crucial minutes aboard the burning Deepwater Horizon is a classic example of tight framing. (And no, it was not done in one day.)

But Huppert’s Checkers story shows that it’s just as important to place a tight frame around your daily story. The frame helps the writer decide what pieces of reporting to put in and what to leave out. It helps you identify your lead and your ending. And it can help you choose your story structure.

So when you embark on a story, don’t just think about the issue or event you’re covering. Spend some extra time thinking about how you’ll tell that story—how you’ll frame it. And remember: the sooner you identify the frame, the sooner you can zero in on the reporting you need to do.

Here’s another daily story that teaches a great lesson. It’s by Lane DeGregory of the Tampa Bay Times. Have a read.

Idea Number 2. Do some planning. Often we know in advance—sometimes weeks in advance—that that we will be doing a daily story on some event or issue. Thinking about the story ahead of time (and how we might tell it) affords us the chance to identify reporting opportunities, set up some interviews. DeGregory had covered Officer Yaslowitz’s funeral, and knew that at some point, she wanted to follow up with the policeman’s widow. Once she decided to tell the story through the frame of Mrs. Yaslowitz’s first day back at kindergarten, she could make the calls necessary to give her access.

When our daily stories involve breaking news, we’re left to scramble to find sources and arrange interviews. But many of our best one-day stories don’t involve breaking news—they involve the community’s ongoing life. If we can identify more of those stories, and plan in advance how we’ll do them, we’ll have more time during our one-day window to devote to reporting and writing.

Now here’s a story by Diane Tennant of the Virginia-Pilot that was done in a day and takes some creative risks. Have a look.

Idea Number 3. Ask yourself, “What’s this story’s purpose?”

Some stories are meant to expose wrongdoing. Others aim to inform. Some help members of a community better understand each other.

And some just plain entertain.

Along the way, Tennant’s story also demonstrated to readers of the Virginian-Pilot the role that social media is playing in their community. But at its heart is a cute story that caused one reader to say in an email: “Thank you, what a pleasant surprise to read such a tender story in the paper this morning!”

One of my former editors used to say that every day’s news report should include a surprise—a story that readers and viewers would find nowhere else, and which would remind them why they valued us. Tennant’s story was a surprise.

I asked her about her story’s purpose, and she said she had not thought much about that.

“When I saw Binky’s picture on Facebook, I called my family’s attention to it, and then it kind of struck me that if Binky’s story amused me and my family, and had amused the restaurant’s followers on FB, then it would probably resonate with The Pilot’s readers, too.”

Her answer made me think she knew exactly what she wanted her story to accomplish. She wanted it to amuse me. It did.

Oh, and just to make sure no one thinks the Virginian-Pilot has eschewed serious journalism, “Binky’s Big Adventure” ran in a paper whose front page featured the “Defiant Governor” vowing to expand Medicaid over the legislature’s objections; and an enterprise story on how the history of accidents involving military drones raises questions about the possibility of increased drone traffic.

Bonus time. Back to Lane DeGregory for a story that puts this all together. Take a read.

Did this story make use of all three ideas?

Tight frame: The focus was on one woman, returning to confession on one night, at one church.

Advance planning: DeGregory obtained advance permission for a reporter and photographer to attend the service and approach attendees. (She avoided wasting half her evening wandering from church to church in search of someone she could interview—and photograph.)

Purpose: The story explored a question as old as the human race—what propels a person to seek forgiveness from God?

DeGregory explains her process:

“I had seen an ad on TV about the Catholic Church opening its doors for people to come ‘home.’ My husband is a recovering Catholic, as he calls it, and I was interested in who might return, and why they left, and what they hoped to get out of it. I called a couple different churches, mostly ones where I knew people who attended so I could drop names, and got that one to agree to let me in. We weren't allowed to go into the confessional, which was a bummer, especially for the photographer. But we came early, not knowing who—if anyone—we would find, and the line stretched around the church. We approached probably 20 people who didn't want to talk before finding this one sweet woman who was hesitant, but willing.

“I left about 8 p.m., I think, and wrote it by 10 p.m. for the next day.”

Lane said she was attracted to this story by plain old curiosity.

“I was brought up being made to go to Methodist church, where we didn't confess. And I've never gotten why anyone would want to spill their sins. But I just thought something powerful must be happening to draw someone back to the church after all these years, not to go to a Sunday service but to confess something. I knew there would be drama and mystery and God and sorrow and regret there. And a quiet, reverent scene.”

For me, these three ideas add up to a sound strategy for writing better daily stories. Start by choosing stories with the potential to be memorable. Yes, cover breaking news—but stop chasing it to the exclusion of stories that readers and viewers might, just might, consume in their entirety—and remember.

There is much about the disruption of the media landscape that individual editors and reporters cannot control. What you can control are the stories you choose to do.

Let’s not squander that opportunity.

 

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