Providing overwatch for all the important things

So, in order to serve your community, build a thriving circulation and have financial success, you need to keep an eye on all the things important to the lives of the people in your area — and make sure the people know you’re doing it, doing it right and doing it well.

Someone needs to keep an eye on everything people depend on to make sure it’s in working order, as well as to identify problems before they decay into a disaster. Newspapers are best suited to doing this work for the communities they serve. (Image: Tech. Sgt. Lawrence, a USAF quality assurance inspector. U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Marie Brown)

For all the people in your community to have this trust in you, you need to take a step back and think carefully about exactly what you’re going to keep an eye on, how you’re going to assemble and report information, and how you’re going to get paid for the service you’re providing.

What to cover depends in part on the specifics of your community, but there are a lot of things that are going to be universal. You can assume a number of general categories, such as health care, education, employment, housing, transportation, energy, the environment, public safety, and so on. We will take a close look at the kind of specific subjects that fit under these kind of headings in subsequent discussions, but the point must always be things occurring in the real world your readers live in, things that have a direct bearing on the qualities of their lives, and things they may require them to make decisions or take actions.

How to report on each topic is going to require you to exercise good judgment, informed by the knowledge that people are counting on you to keep them aware of what’s what. You need to show that you’re on your toes, not letting little problems pass by unnoticed or leaving chronic problems to fester out of sight until something explodes.

In order to do this, your reporting and publishing needs to be divided into two well-coordinated programs: a general overview of all of the things people need to know about their community, and stories covering events of a more immediate or specific nature.

The general overview lays out all the things people need to be aware of in their community that don’t particularly change much from day to day. Consider the topic of water supply discussed briefly in the last installment. The general overview lays out the water districts in the region you cover, things you think are important such as who’s responsible for running them, budget, personnel, facilities, equipment, and so on. More important for the overview, though, are matters such as needs or challenges of an enduring nature or that may require serious decisions at some point. For these kind of matters you want to lay out what they are, how significant they may be, and what plans, if any, may be in place to deal with them.

For many topics, the general overview uses the same approach to every topic you’re covering: who is responsible for what, what resources do they have to do they job, what risks, challenges, threats, or opportunities are they dealing with, and how are they dealing with them.

This kind of information likely does not change very much or very often, but you still need to make sure it’s available to your readers and that what you provide is reasonably current. You could do this by maintaining a full set of reports on a web site, or by publishing a special report on a monthly or quarterly basis. When you do this, you provide a common reference for the entire community for the general state of affairs, in depth and detail.

If your daily reporting is published using the same structure of topics as the overview, you multiply the value of the overview and give readers a reason to pick up the paper and check out what’s up in each day’s edition. They know what you’re covering, they know where to find it, they know you’re filling in gaps and fleshing out the overview. While there are certainly many things that you’ll want to publish that may not fit into any category of the overview — recipes? theater reviews? — most news will not only fit into a category, it will enrich the understanding of the situation or perhaps provide insights fundamentally altering what had been the common perception.

For example, the general overview of fire departments may have had nothing significant to report — but then a reporter finds out that a new fire truck can barely fit into its assigned fire station. Based on this, you may want to check out how old the fire stations are throughout the area and whether they are large enough for modern equipment. And how many may be looking to replace old or out-moded equipment. And how much it costs to build a new station. And where they get their funding from. And how they make decisions about equipment and facilities.

From one report, you may get an entire series of reports that make people throughout the area aware of what’s going on with a public safety system that they ordinarily take for granted, assuming that it will be there when they need it and that they don’t need to think about at all.

From the investigation, you would then update your general overview of fire fighting capabilities in the region, summarizing the new information in whatever way you think best, but proving to the community that you’re on top of things and they can count on you for the information they need.

This approach to covering and publishing information has impacts on how you can market advertising space. Besides having a substantially larger circulation, advertisers are likely going to find specific value in locating their ads with specific categories of news because they can safely assume that anyone who in the community who is interested or concerned with that category will read what is on that page (web or print), mostly likely to include advertising that is relevant to the category. Compare this with the value content of ads tossed randomly on pages anywhere in a paper, or popping up on pages with completely unrelated news content, this is a seriously positive value proposition.

You need to always keep in mind that you fail your community if you only print stories about problems that have exploded into disasters or decayed into scandal, when it’s too late to do anything constructive, or that fester and annoy people because they aren’t serious enough to write up and in any event even if you publish a story will fade into background noise after a day or two. Traditional news reporting and publishing fail to meet the need. If you meet the need and serve the community’s need, you’ll establish your paper as a cornerstone of the community, and make a good living doing it.

Last installment: Earning your keep by keeping watch over the community

Next installment: Your readers need to know they can count on you

Learned in the Army to provide information that is thorough, accurate, meaningful and useful — and what happens when you don’t.

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