By Jim Pumarlo, Newsroom Trainer
Jim Pumarlo is former editor of the Red Wing (Minn.) Republican Eagle. He writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be reached at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s standard procedure at many newspapers to chronicle headlines in year-end editions. The continuing social and economic impact of COVID-19 is certain to capture a lion’s share of attention in most communities. Other noteworthy events can include the passing of key individuals; the success, or maybe failure, of a civic project; milestones in sports achievements, election results or key community benchmarks.
That begs the question: Are you ready for 2022? All newsrooms should prepare an editorial calendar and review it regularly. Yes, we are already weeks into the new year, but it’s not too late to develop a plan of action.
Many of the things you cover spanning hard news and features are the same year after year. Use the opportunity to explore new ideas and approaches for coverage. When is the last time you’ve really examined reports on local government budgets, a community’s citizen of the year or United Way kickoff, the start of another school year or high school sports season, a civic fundraiser, the months-long election season?
Think across the spectrum of your community as you prepare a calendar. Here are three areas.
Public affairs always demand attention beginning with meetings of local government bodies. Do you preview the important agenda items? Do you go beyond the votes and explain the impact of actions in real and understandable terms? Think outside meetings. Trace the process of how a recommendation reaches an elected body. Government bodies spend weeks, even months, preparing budgets before adoption. Capital improvement projects are previewed – sometimes including a tour. A school board seeks feedback on a variety of fronts before deciding whether to close and/or consolidate schools.
Also, consider stories that warrant special coverage. Has a longtime public official announced that this will be his or her last term? In that regard, look at the private sector, too. Is a company’s founder retiring, selling the firm? Are single issues dominating a government body or communitywide debate?
Sports present a staple of stories: the preview, the continuum of the regular season, the playoffs. Team performance can present challenges and opportunities. How do you keep readers interested if a team suffers through a losing season, possibly not even winning a single game? In contrast, what stories can be pursued if a team is headed for a championship season, maybe even going undefeated?
Again, brainstorm stories that may warrant special coverage. Is an athlete on the verge of achieving a scoring milestone? Might a coach notch a noteworthy victory? Is this the last season for a school in a sports conference due to league realignment? Has a team suffered a revolving door of coaches in recent years?
Civic clubs are the fabric of communities. The number of groups and the range of contributions mean editors are routinely approached with requests for coverage. The “asks” range from the Lions Club annual brat feed fund-raiser to volunteer of the year recognition to a candidate forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters. It’s impossible to produce a story and photo for each event. Communicate with organizations early and discuss the two elements of publicity: promotion and actual coverage. An even better idea is to produce guidelines that can be distributed to publicity chairs.
Some items warrant special coverage here as well. Is a club celebrating a significant anniversary? Is a local officer rising through the ranks in an affiliated state or national organization? Does a fund-raiser or other project have extra significance for a community?
Planning a calendar can be overwhelming. These are but three areas in your entire menu of news. So take a slow approach. Explore and outline your editorial calendar for the everyday regimen of news.
Then identify one new area where you’d like to bolster coverage. Announce it in a column, and set up a process for soliciting community feedback. Develop a plan of action and present it to readers.
Every newsroom is stretched for time and resources as you strive to produce stories that people like to read and stories that people should read. The pandemic continues to demand regular attention, making your tasks even more challenging. Any additional time you give to planning your calendar is a win-win-win scenario for your newspaper, your readers and your community.