By Jim Pumarlo
Jim Pumarlo 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.
A publisher once asked how I defined aggressive reporting. During my tenure at the Red Wing Republican Eagle, we considered it our badge of honor. If someone threw up roadblocks to information we considered pertinent to our readers, we doubled and tripled our efforts – and usually were successful.
So what type of scenarios prompted stepped-up investigation and reporting? A handful of circumstances immediately come to mind.
A local business makes significant layoffs with no public explanation.
Starting players don’t dress for high school sporting events for no apparent reason.
A government body awards a vendor contract worth thousands of dollars and takes the unusual measure of voting in secret.
A company sends letters to landowners to gauge their interest in being a host site for storage of radioactive nuclear waste with all correspondence purposely kept under the public radar.
A law enforcement chief is suspended for taking a joy ride with his nephew in the new water patrol boat during working hours; the city makes a deal to not voluntarily disclose the suspension.
We pursued all of the stories and published the facts. Many of our arguments were grounded in the letter of the law on open meetings and government data. We pushed equally hard for the information in the spirit of the law.
But aggressive reporting extends beyond tackling the sensitive and contentious subjects in recording a community’s living history. Being assertive also means delivering meaningful content. It means putting yourselves in the mindset of readers – paying attention to the 5 Ws and H of a solid story to make sure you have filled all gaps.
Consider these examples:
• A headline announces a local chamber of commerce banquet. The two-sentence news brief reads, in part: “The Chamber of Commerce held its annual meeting and awards dinner Monday night… Results were not available at press time.”
• A city council has its annual reorganizational meeting with contested balloting for the president and vice president positons. The two individuals are elected on split ballots, each by a different voting block. The story references some of the motions and debate, but nowhere does it report who voted for whom on the two ballots.
• An individual announces his candidacy for an elective office he unsuccessfully sought two years earlier. The report is accompanied by a two-year-old photo with his long hair; he now sports a conventional haircut. The photo was updated on the website, but was it caught in time for the print edition?
• A young woman decides to open a clothing store because she has difficulty finding wardrobes for her tall, slender build. The feature story omits the most important fact: her height.
• A local high school sports team plays an away game on a Tuesday night. The result, not reported until the nondaily’s Saturday edition, includes individual point totals for the host team but says hometown player statistics were not available.
• Three residents speak up at a meeting, challenging a local government body’s action on an issue that has gained communitywide attention. The reporter – remotely watching the cable broadcast of the meeting months before any social distancing precautions due to the coronavirus – quotes two of the speakers minus their names.
The examples should make all editors cringe. The lackadaisical reporting and disregard to elementary information erode a newspaper’s foundational credibility. The examples are an embarrassment to a newspaper’s self-promotion as the go-to source for local news. At a very basic level, the misfires in reporting prompt readers and advertisers alike to ask: What’s the value of the product?
Make no mistake today’s media landscape is fractured and changing every day. The challenges to survive and thrive are even greater due to the economic impact of the coronavirus.
Newspapers still have an inside track as the premier clearinghouse of information in your communities, and you have many platforms on which to deliver that news. Community newspapers, at their best, are stewards of your communities. The news columns are a blend of stories that people like to read and stories they should read.
But success depends on practicing the tenets of solid reporting. Ignore the basic elements of journalism, and the path to maintaining relevancy in your communities becomes much steeper.