Yes, you can think big, regardless of the size of your newspaper
The following article is based on the workshop Small Towns, Big Stories at Wordstock 2005 at Ryerson University
By Gregg McLachlan
Small is a word that worms its way into the vocabulary of small-market newspapers far too often. "We have a small staff. We have a small paper. We live in a small town. We have a small news hole. We have little time. We're just a small town where nothing much happens."
So what happens to such a newspaper? It gets stuck in an endless cycle of recycling the same stories year after year. Warm and fuzzy letters congratulating the newspaper are received. In the end, everyone is happy. It's another success story.
A small mindset can be entrenched in many ways:
By the way we present our product. I remember an editor once telling me that the biggest headline used in the paper was 36 point. Thirty-six point? That's thinking small. Imagine the image the newspaper is conveying at the newsstand: There's the local paper with a 36-point headline on its top local story, and next to it is the competing urban daily with a 72-point headline on its top local story. (If we don't treat local news as the big news -- and catch readers' attention -- how are readers expected to know we've got the local scoop?)
By the way we talk on the telephone:"Hello, I'm from a small newspaper . . ." (You might as well be saying, "Hello, my paper isn't as important as a big paper.")
By the way we emphasize the big papers when talking to 'our' readers: "Hello, I'm doing a story because of what's in today's Big City Herald."
By the way we get spurred into writing editorials and/or news stories that directly mention and rebut what was printed in a big paper. We automatically assume everyone in our small town has read the big paper's article and therefore it needs to be addressed by the 'small' paper. . . . (unfortunately, what we end up doing is telling our readership, "Hey, go read the big paper!"). How often do you see metro dailies rebutting news stories printed in smaller papers?
Newspapers, regardless of size, can think big. Really, when I say big stories, I mean special stories. It's about including something in your newspaper as often as humanly possible that's different, something that's not expected. I'm not talking about human interest features. I'm talking about special stories that draw your readers into a topic that leaves them thinking -- and hopefully -- discussing it long after they finish reading. One of the best examples is Issues Reporting.
Two recent page 1 stories have done just that at our daily newspaper (they are two examples of 'big' stories that can be done by any newspaper, regardless of staff size). Each example below was put together over a span of three weeks as each reporter juggled other daily assignments:
The Anatomy of a Bankruptcy: When a local convenience store went bankrupt, it left behind $1 million in unpaid bills. We got a copy of the list of creditors from the bankruptcy trustee. What followed was a 1,000-word piece on what led to the demise of the store, and the many businesses which took a financial hit. The story had the town talking.
The Bomb: In the 1960s at the height of the Cold War, most communities in North America developed emergency plans for the unthinkable: fallout from a nuclear attack on the U.S. In our rural county, we researched archives for details of such a plan. We even found that one town's nuclear fallout shelter still existed. The reinforced concrete bunker that was to hold 1,000 people, is today a storage cooler for cheese. One of the nice tie-ins for this story is that preparations for dealing with a bird flu pandemic are reaching the scale of what was planned in the event of nuclear attack in the 1960s.
Small newspapers face some common obstacles in doing big stories. I call them The Big Five
Dilemma: "We have so many assignments to do that we can't do big stories."
Solution: Talk to your editor. Ask: How can I have time to work on a special story about _________ ? Maybe it's getting a full day to work on a story (although that can be a rarity at a small paper). Or an hour here and there for a week (a much more realistic plan). Either way, you'd like some time to work on a big story (not for yourself, but for the readers). Another good idea is to pitch one day a week as Surprise the Reader Day. It's that one day when your paper publishes a story that is a surprise, a story that's not expected. It's a nice change from predictability (ie. County council is always the top story in Monday's issue, school board is always the top story in Thursday's paper, etc). And it's about recognizing the value of the end product for your readers. An editor who's progressive should embrace such an approach to avoid being a predictable newspaper.
Dilemma: "We only have a handful of reporters!"
Solution: Create a rotation where reporters get time to work on a special assignment. You'll still have to work on regular assignments, perhaps, but it might mean one less story on a particular day. Other reporters will have to pick up the slack. Eventually, each reporter will get their turn to work on a special assignment. In effect, everyone is contributing to the effort, even if they're not the one working on the special assignment during that particular week.
Dilemma: Young, inexperienced staff
Solution: Look at it this way: If you've got a young staff, you should have a valuable tool to work with . . . enthusiasm. Learn about your staff's interests. Now talk about those interests and how they can be adapted to producing stories of interest to your community. Years ago, I had one summer intern who loved the outdoors. So I sent him off to camp at the tip of a remote sandspit in Lake Erie. He reported on life at the loneliest place in our county. The reporter was beaming before and after the assignment. Another time, a young reporter interested in crime reporting was put on the trail of the last man hanged in our county. He tracked down the condemned man's sister and got a copy of the criminal's final letter on the eve of his execution.
Dilemma: Editor won't let reporters work on big stuff; editor isn't interested in our story ideas
Solution: Editors have to think BIG too. Some small newspapers' news content is dominated by meeting coverage. Meetings that are so interesting, the public can't even be bothered to attend. But week after week there's the newspaper reporter. If you have a staff of five reporters and the bulk of coverage involves reporters attending meetings, how can anything else be done? Remember, few young reporters envisioned a career where they sat in meeting upon meeting upon meeting taking notes. Yes, meetings are potentially great places to mine for stories, but there needs to be a balance. Don't dismiss the story pitches from your reporters (there's a reason they're pitching them and editors can either embrace that initiative or crush the enthusiasm).
Dilemma: There are a zillion excuses why small newspapers don't do stories that are big or routinely create community buzz.
"We're a local newspaper, we're a family newspaper . . .yadda, yadda, yadda."
"We do cover big news. Last week we reported on what the Rotary Club is doing."
"The publisher doesn't want controversy that will piss off advertisers." *
Solution: Change your thinking to How Can We Do It, rather than Why We Can't Do It.
Several years ago, we convinced our publisher to pay for a reporter's one-week trip to Jamaica to report on the lives of Jamaicans who travel north to our county each year to work in farm fields. Our goal was to show our local readers how Jamaicans better their lives on the island because of the income they earn working in our fields. So what was part of our sales pitch to the publisher? Well, a special series would also show local businesses -- the same ones that sell TVs, electronics and furniture to the workers -- how their merchandise is contributing to a better lifestyle in Jamaica.
When we don't have spot news happening on a daily basis, we need to look at big news in a different way . . . even if that means using our imaginations to 'create' headline news. We can add variety to developing our unique big stories if we adopt five key themes:
Reactive: 1) Downtown crime (Realizing that your paper has reported two dozen break-ins over the past three months, you report on the crime wave). 2) As welfare rate rise, poverty increases and food banks see more clients, you take a closer look at those people who are living in poverty (ie. homeless).
Educational: 1) The 10 best beaches in the county (A reporter is sent on a road trip to visit beaches (tough assignment!) and report on the best ones. It's taking a concept from a magazine (Top 10 Beaches in the Caribbean) and applying it to your newspaper.) 2) Do residents in your area complain about not being able to reach government officials on the telephone? Put those officials to the test with a series of telephone calls (and then record the painful process of voicemails, calls not returned, secretaries who run interference, etc). (We did this test and the results looked so bad for a local school board that it soon adopted a policy to ensure better communication with the public.)
Proactive: 1) Are we ready for a bird flu pandemic in our county? Examine your county's policies and disaster plan. 2) Before budget time when officials are debating public works spending, profile some of the worst roads in your county and the horror stories of the people who live there.
Investigative: 1) Get cellphone records of county officials to see who's ringing up the highest bills/airtime at taxpayers' expense. 2) Businesses go bankrupt all the time. Get a list of the creditors who are owed money when a business goes bankrupt (a list of creditors is public information and is available from the bankruptcy trustee). It's a great place to start for doing an Anatomy of a Bankruptcy story.
Humorous: 1) Ask an auctioneer to join you on a field expedition to place a value on the junk people are throwing away (sort of an Antiques Roadside Show about Junk). 2) Give a reporter a tape measure and have him/her measure the dimensions of parking spaces at the local mall. Most municipalities have bylaws regulating those dimensions, but not all spaces comply. It might explain why one parking lot is notorious for where car doors getting dinged.