Don’t neglect nuts and bolts reporting


By Steve Key
Hoosier State Press Association

An interesting story in Editor & Publisher by former News and Record (Greensboro, N.C.) editor John L. Robinson presented his recipe for newspaper success.

His main ingredients: Investigative reporting and good news stories.

Robinson wrote that investigative stories “fit the idea that the purpose of journalism is to provide the information citizens need to be free and self-governing.”

As for good news stories, he wrote: “What goes viral? Stories, photos and videos that make you smile or feel better.”

He argues that newspapers should concentrate on quality over quantity.

I agree to a point, but quantity also has its place in a community’s newspaper.

A newspaper does collect information that someone could find elsewhere, but the beauty is that the editor has collected this variety of information in one place for the reader.

And the newspaper serves as the witness to government actions for citizens who haven’t got the time to attend all the commissioner, council and board meetings that occur on a monthly basis.

Newspapers shouldn’t forget the nuts-and-bolts of covering a county in the search for good news.

Would I rather read about how San Francisco turned out to make Batkid’s dream of being a superhero come true? Sure.

But I need to know what Indianapolis’ efforts to control storm water runoff will cost me and whether it’s going to make a difference in the pollution level of Pleasant Run, Fall Creek or the White River.

Newspapers should continue to be the first draft of history.

They should include those nuggets of information gleaned from public records: births, deaths and arrests.

Court news should be a staple: who’s suing whom and why; who’s facing criminal charges; what was the outcome of the trial?

Board of commissioners, city council, and school board meetings can be pretty dry, but they should be covered.

I agree with Robinson that reporters should go beyond what happened at the meetings and explain why and what the ramifications are. But at the minimum, let’s cover the action taken or discussed.

With limited resources, the editor may not have the luxury of giving a reporter the time to dig into an issue that would produce that investigative story or find and write a great news feature.

But creativity might free up time for the trained reporter, by taking some of the nuts-and-bolts items off that reporter’s shoulders.

You don’t need a journalism degree to gather public record items from government offices, but an editor may have to review data gathered to see if a story lies hidden in those items.

For decades, rural newspapers have relied on correspondents to keep up with social news from outlying communities.

Couldn’t similar correspondents be trained to cover a specific court or fire department or pick up the daily log information from the sheriff’s department?

Many a sports editor has depended on high school students to report Friday football scores or basketball results.

Couldn’t an editor train a bright college student to cover a specific town board that’s generally not controversial?

You don’t need a journalism degree to convert church news and other tidbits from service clubs into usable content, but you need that content.

Maximize your specialized resources and cultivate new resources to cover community news.

Without the nuts and bolts, newspapers lose some of their unique value to readers.

Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.