Story ideas, leadership and points to ponder

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It’s a mantra I’ve uttered for years: “Local” is not a synonym for “parochial.” That’s never been truer than today as local outlets cover this extraordinary coronavirus outbreak. Most of the outlets I see are doing an extraordinary job in difficult circumstances.

I recently had the opportunity to offer some suggestions to a media company with dozens of newspapers and local digital sites in mainly smaller markets around the U.S. With their permission, I’m sharing a portion of what I provided in hopes that it will help others cope with a story that everyone wants to end sooner rather than later. 

Beyond story ideas, I thought about ideas related to process and leadership. Local staff members need to know that the execs above them “have their backs” as the cliché goes. Local editors need concrete direction on priorities and available resources. I also urge everyone to creatively turbocharge their digital efforts.

For group media outlets, is there a quickly actionable deployment plan for additional resources in the event that a local community becomes a “hot spot” for the story? Also, does every local outlet have a contact plan, ideally 24/7, for quick response to employees in the event they have a legal, ethical or staff safety question, particularly for issues journalists encounter in coverage of this story? Most state press associations can help here, too.

What I didn’t address, and it’s a big omission, is minimizing the economic fallout as advertisers cut back. I’ll leave that to others beyond noting that if you do a great job of covering the story locally, it’s not crass to remind people to support the paper with their subscriptions. And everyone should urge support of community businesses and their employees.

Following are some other ideas and points to ponder:

Digital issues and opportunities

Are you dedicated to making digital platforms the best places for people to get timely, helpful and credible information? Try to do more than take down your paywall.

The goal is to use digital media to see what’s going on in the community and to crowdsource help from your readers. Make it easy and visible to email or call with tips to a local point of contact. Someone locally should be regularly looking at FB pages and Twitter feeds for various communities, municipalities, key organizations, etc., as well as sites like Nextdoor.

You can’t do it all. There’s nothing wrong with curating valuable information and linking to trustworthy sites. The goal is to be as valuable to the community as possible.

E-newsletters are back in vogue for good reasons. You can leverage this, perhaps doing one a day that summarizes local-impact developments. (You might even find a sponsor for these efforts and be able to collect addresses of an entire new cohort of readers.)

This is a terrific opportunity for online chats or use of Facebook Live. Get a local expert, the school superintendent, the police chief, etc. Announce it and take questions. Archive it after the event. An editor or reporter can moderate.

Utilizing sports people

In most markets, the sports journalists have no games to cover. Initially, they’ve had plenty to do following angles based on the widespread cancellations.

As those angles exhaust themselves, the sports journalists could be in charge of expanded social media efforts or a daily FAQ. The ones who are good editors can help copy edit and/or do production work to free up more news-side people to shed process activity. And often the best writers can be found in sports. If you have a great storyteller in one of your departments, turn him or her loose to do news-features about local residents feeling the most impact.

A few story ideas

FAQs: Do them, focusing on local angles. Readers like them. Update them every day.

Test kits: This goes without saying as the most important angle in this moment, but I guess I’ll say it anyway. How hard is it to get tested in your community? What do your local health professionals have to say? Maybe you have a local doc or local residents with relatives from Korea or one of these other countries that has done a far better job than the U.S. quickly testing people.

Capacity: I was struck to see figures that the U.S. has one of the lowest numbers of hospital beds per 1,000 people (2.8) than any developed country. Italy also has this problem. Our health-care system is under stress already, particularly in many of the rural areas where the local paper remains, by far, the primary source of credible info. I can’t think of a story more important than to examine the capacity of your local markets’ health care providers to deal with a major pandemic. What are they doing to prepare? How can they surge if need be?

Supplies/Quarantine: I think one of the most useful things you can do is explain what would happen if an area really was quarantined. Would stores close? Is there any reason to really be concerned that you won’t be able to get toilet paper or water? Talk to the Wal-Mart managers as well as the mom-and-pop convenience stores about their supply chains. What more are stores and other public places doing to sanitize? How well is the supply chain working for your local health-care providers?

Schools: Particularly in rural areas that lack fast internet and public transportation, it’s of major importance to explore angles of school closings. If schools are going to try to do distance learning, what about kids who don’t have fast internet at home? In a lot of small towns, many kids have to go the library or McDonald’s to get on the internet. Are libraries going to be open? Where do people in your small towns go to get Wi-Fi? What about the many kids who get their best meals at school?

Closings/restrictions: It would be a great public service to be the one-stop shop for all the local facilities such as hospitals, nursing homes, libraries, churches, fitness centers, movie theatres, etc. with a comprehensive, searchable list of what’s closed or restricted. You might consider a partnership with a local TV or radio station in the interest of public service.

Economic impact: Part of your coverage should be to stay on top of layoffs and other economic disruptions. Are your leading local employers providing paid sick leave? Obvious places to start are to talk to the owners/operators and workers at places that have closed. The flip side is businesses that are benefiting or mission-critical to the crisis. Maybe you have a local plant that makes a chemical used in Purell. What about workers and companies who sanitize and clean public places? Maybe you have an Amazon or UPS warehouse working at triple speed.

Two final thoughts

  1. Great stories are about people!
    Find a way to give your best writers, photographers and videographers the time to do some powerful storytelling. In every community, it should be easy to identify one or two people or groups every day who can be the focal point for compelling journalism. It’s also an opportunity to salute the heroes and those working tirelessly to make a difference.
  1. Great stories need to be told the best way!
    It’s a good time for this classic reminder: Take a few seconds to discuss the best way to tell a specific story. The answer might not be the typical default of a 15-inch story with a mug shot. It could be a photo essay, a list, a video interview that you transcribe for print or even a slide deck. Be creative in presentation.

Dennis Hetzel retired in 2019 as executive director of the Ohio News Media Association after an extensive career as a reporter, editor and publisher. He also has taught collegiate journalism and published two novels. His firm, Fresh Angle Communications, provides consulting and writing-editing services. He lives in Holden Beach, North Carolina, and can be reached at drhetzel@gmail.com.

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