Broaden definition of big projects


By Jim Pumarlo
Newspaper consultant

Brainstorm big editorial projects, and the mind-set often focuses on an in-depth series that can take weeks to research and write.

The report will be published over multiple days in your print and digital platforms. The projects can energize your staff and deliver substantive content to your readers.

Or, despite your best intentions, projects can get bogged down by your everyday “must” reporting and never materialize.

That doesn’t mean you stop aiming for the big projects. It does, however, mean you should expand your definition. Identify opportunities to generate more substantive reports in everyday coverage.

Here’s one list of ways to expand what otherwise may be routine reports.

Annual reports are routinely presented at local government meetings – from a wrap-up of parent advisory council activities to residential and commercial/industrial building permits to public safety statistics.

Identify the most compelling highlights. Showcase those in a story accompanied by a sidebar with the overall statistics.

Election coverage is an exhaustive, months-long process. Identify stories beyond the norm, for example: the diary of a first-time candidate; a breakdown of campaign contributions; the inner workings of a campaign committee.

Give attention to second-day stories. Broaden the conversation with individuals beyond those associated with the original report. These stories are also a great way to distinguish your coverage from that of “outside” media. Follow-up stories are especially worthwhile and effective when reporting on sensitive and challenging circumstances that may prompt charges of sensationalism.

Expand business news beyond store openings and anniversaries, new hires and labor disputes. Jobs consume a great deal of people’s lives. A variety of stories affecting employers and employees can be pursued that are both interesting and substantive.

High school graduations are among the numerous stories written about year after year. Find a distinctive fact about the graduating classes, for example: academic and/or athletic accomplishments; a student who has overcome personal challenges; a young entrepreneur.

Local governments spend months in developing and reviewing budgets, yet many reporters see the materials for the first time when they pick up the agenda packet – or, worse yet – at the meeting when the budget is adopted. Develop a plan to present the budget to readers in a step-by-step and meaningful way.

Newsrooms shouldn’t lose their enthusiasm for pursuing special projects either. Here’s another list of ideas:

Chronicle a day in the life of your community. Think beyond your newsroom to find individuals to help record 24 hours in your community through words and photos on all your platforms. Enlist staff from other departments as well as community members.

Produce a weekly feature of fun things to do in your readership area. Rotate the assignment among reporters.

Profile individuals not regularly in the news. Scan any batch of your newspapers, and it’s a good bet many of the same names and faces appear. Introduce nontraditional newsmakers who are no less noteworthy or interesting for one reason or another. The profile can be used to localize a state or national story.

Set an agenda for the community in the first editorial in January, identifying a handful of key projects or a theme that your newspaper will emphasize during the coming year – for example, supporting funding for a biking trail or focusing on health care reform. Identify news/editorial packages to advance the theme.

Brainstorm projects as a team. Those who suggest a good idea get first dibs on the story.

If you’re going to put the time and effort into pursuing big projects, don’t forget the most important step: Identify those reports that resonate with your readers. Be proactive in soliciting citizen comments and suggestions for everyday coverage and special projects.

Your ultimate goal is to enrich your news product.

Jim Pumarlo provides training on community newsroom strategies.