Execute your strength: Put names, faces behind the stories

Jim Pumarlo

Oct 30, 2020

Nothing is more satisfying than looking at your product — whether it’s the print or digital edition — and smiling in approval, “We’ve got it covered. We’re connecting with our readers.”

Developing relationships with subscribers and advertisers is imperative to success in today’s fractured media landscape. The stakes are even higher as many newspapers navigate the economic impact of the pandemic.

So play to your strengths. Connect the names and faces of those involved in and affected by items in your everyday news report. Tell their stories.

As a first step, collect a half-dozen copies of your newspaper and sit down for a brainstorming session. Go beyond your newsroom. Your entire newspaper family often represents a great cross-section of your community and can contribute valuable insights. Review the editions, and pay particular attention to the names and faces of the newsmakers. Circle them in red, and make a list.

The exercise is especially helpful when examining coverage of local government meetings. Do many of the same names appear over and over? As an editor friend points out: Are you giving more attention to the folks in the front of the room versus those in the back of the room? Are you writing for the sources or for those affected by government decisions?

Circumstances and deadlines might well dictate that you report just the facts in the next edition. Then, take the next steps.

Consider these examples. A school board raises extracurricular fees to help close the gap between expenses and revenues. A city council imposes plastic bag fees on local merchants, maybe even adopts an outright ban. A county board establishes a grant program for businesses impacted by the coronavirus.

Each action presents possibilities for second-day stories and substantive content that can distinguish you from your competitors. The follow-up reports inevitably will include individuals not normally appearing in your newspaper.

There are opportunities beyond government meetings to broaden your portfolio of newsmakers. For example:

Chambers of commerce have their annual awards banquet recognizing excellence in a variety of categories. At least a half-dozen businesses are often recognized. The list is ready-made news for the next edition. Don’t stop there. Profile each of the honorees in successive editions, giving attention to additional names and faces.

Election season is almost gone, but here’s an idea for the next cycle. Coverage, for good reason, focuses on the candidates. How about profiling the chair of a campaign committee, the person who really drives the push for votes? Highlight someone in his or her first campaign; highlight a veteran of several campaigns.

High school sports are the heart of many communities, and head coaches naturally receive a great deal of attention. What drives assistant coaches? How are they selected, and why do they cherish their supportive roles? You’ll probably find interesting stories and new faces to highlight.

Police blotters are another opportunity to link local residents to events. Consider this report. A bank foreclosed on a house, and a court order was issued to evict the family. Police surrounded the home for two hours, and all ended peacefully. It was the 35th eviction ordered that day. That fact prompts all sorts of questions and potential follow-up stories. Did the evicted families have a common profile? Where did they spend the next night, week, month? Are there community resources to assist these families? It’s a sensitive story and one that will require extra effort to pursue. It also will result in a host of new voices on your pages.

Collecting and publishing the news is an imperfect endeavor, at best. Connecting with individuals outside of the normal network of sources often demands more work.

All newspapers strive to consistently produce a report that reflects a living history of their communities. That should drive you to expand the catalog of newsmakers used to tell your stories.

Also, news reports shouldn’t be predictable. Broadening the menu of names and faces that appear in your products reflects journalism at its best and generates solid content. It’s a win-win for your newspaper and your community.

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 jim@pumarlo.com.