Time lines offer data for readers, reporters

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By Jim Pumarlo

A city council approves tax incentives for a shopping center after a months-long process that provoked emotions from proponents and opponents alike.

A basketball team completes a perfect season, capping it with a state championship.

A jury convicts a local resident of a triple murder after rumors and legal maneuvers captivate the community for two years.

High-profile stories such as these are commonplace in our communities, punctuated by banner headlines and photos.

The stories prompted prominent coverage when they first broke, and newsrooms likely delivered play-by-play coverage at the various steps.

But how many newspapers provide a comprehensive wrap for those individuals who have not followed the stories from beginning to end?

That probably applies to a good share of your readers.

Chronologies are effective in providing a living history of key events in our communities.

Compiling chronologies also are a valuable tool for newsrooms to ensure meaningful and comprehensive reports. It’s a good bet that several reporters touch these stories.

Staff take vacations, have conflicting assignments or switch jobs. Internal logs enable any reporter to pick up a story midstream.

Crime coverage provides an excellent example as big cases typically last months or years before they are resolved. From day one of the arrest, it’s a good idea to generate files and update them regularly.

Keep a log of key dates and actions. Court appearances are standard information to collect, but there is much more.

Track when motions are filed and ruled on; benchmark such things as changes of venue, new legal representation or judge replacements.

Not all of these items will necessarily be reported when they occur – maybe not ever.

But a complete record will help you present a complete story at its conclusion. Select the important items, and the chronology is ready-made.

Sidebars offer opportunity for graphics and photos, too, to present a reader-friendly package.

These internal files also should include pertinent information on the key players.

For criminal cases, record basic information including names, addresses and birthdates for defendants and victims.

List attorneys and their contact information. Collect appropriate photos. This provides an easy reference for continuing coverage for the lead reporter as well as other staff.

The many starts, stops and detours before committees provide ample opportunity to benchmark the shopping center project.

An undefeated basketball season includes plenty of highlights to chronicle – the come-from-behind victory, a player’s record-setting performance, the showdown between two unbeaten teams.

The legal strategies in court cases, not always readily apparent, can be identified and clarified in a step-by-step account.

And there are many more examples where chronologies help tell a story.

A woman receives a life­time achievement award from a civic club. Profile the individual in the main story, then scan the nomination letters to produce a timetable on her accomplishments.

A former mayor is elected to statewide political office. Her advancement up the political ladder – complete with ups and downs – is noted in the accompanying chronology.

A building is named to the National Register of Historic Places after facing demolition. Its history – including the architect, changes of ownership and court challenges – is outlined in a chronology.

Today’s fractured media landscape demands that editors and reporters explore ways to make news relevant and easy to digest for readers.

Chronologies are an important tool in both regards. Take time to brainstorm the opportunities, and everyone will reap the rewards.

Journalism trainer Jim Pumarlo is author of “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.”