Overwatch: the key to success
In previous installments I’ve talked about the ‘overwatch’ as the key to success for a local newspaper, showing the entire community that it is keeping an eye on everything important to everyone. In early 2019 the Washington Post adopted the motto, “Democracy dies in darkness.” Well, the overwatch turns the local newspaper into a field of floodlights, compared to the handful of flashlights pointed at oddities as per the traditional reporting in conventional newspapers. That the community will benefit from all that light is pretty obvious, and you can take it on faith that your newspaper will see wonderful returns for its work.
The key question is what I mean by “everything important to everyone.” Rather that give a definition, let give you an example of a list of subjects.
✔ Emergency Response. How the community prepares for, deals with and recovers from emergencies and disasters ranging from heart attacks and house fires to hurricanes and wild fires.
Focus on first responders, including police, fire, rescue, paramedics, ambulance, urgent care and emergency room facilities. Disaster response, such as emergency management offices, the National Guard, utilities restoration (electric, gas, water). Safety and disaster preparation, such as building inspections and zoning. Resource availability and sufficiency, particularly private insurance, but also from other sources, including government, private and charitable. And a sense of the most common emergencies seen in the community, as well as exposure to more serious disasters — hurricanes, earthquakes, wild fires, floods, industrial incidents, etc.
✔ Health Care. How the community keeps people healthy and helps them through injury and disease.
Spotlight facilities including hospitals, clinics, labs, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and so on, with special attention to their capabilities and limitations both individually and collectively to deal with emergencies such as the Covid-19 pandamic or following Hurricane Katrina. Providers and licensed professionals. Health insurance carriers and their policies. Financial matters such as provider fees and pricing. Health care needs throughout the community, how well these needs are met by the professional community of providers, needs that are unmet.
✔Energy. How the community keeps the lights on, buildings comfortable, and everything moving.
Report on electricity. Natural gas. Home heating oil. Gasoline and diesel. Energy sources, storage and distribution networks, including the financial and marketing aspects. Major users, industrial, commercial, residential, and so on. Energy needs throughout the community. Environmental impacts associated with each kind of energy, particularly localized impacts in the community.
✔Transportation. How the community gets people and things from where they are to where they need to be.
Cover streets, roads, highways, bridges, tunnels. Airports, commercial and private. Harbors, ports, canals, rivers and navigation. Railroads. Pipelines and long-haul electric transmission systems. Major carriers using each transportation system, their role in the community’s economy. Traffic and congestion, maintenance and repair, finances, sources of funding, revenues and expenses.
✔Communication. How the community moves information from its sources to where it’s needed.
Subject includes internet, cellular, radio and television, newspapers and other media. Ownership of the various systems and outlets. Broadcast and transmission rights. Licensing, regulation and taxes.
✔Education. How the community gives people the knowledge and skills they need to function, to think and understand, to participate meaningfully in life.
Coverage needs to include all of the various public and private schools and school systems for kindergarten through high school in your community. Pre-k and preschool programs. Vocational, trade and apprentice programs. Colleges and universities in the area. Remote and distance learning programs.
✔Environment. Quality of the natural world your community lives in.
A topic of enormous importance, including quality of the air, water and soils in the region, including rivers, lakes and ground water. Supply, distribution and use of potable water. Land use, including agriculture and mines. Solid and liquid waste generation, processing and disposal, from it source to final disposal.
✔Construction. All the buildings where people live, work and shop, and that people use for every other purpose.
Develop an inventory and evaluation of housing throughout the community, location and condition of retail, commercial, office, warehouse, industrial and other structures. Zoning, finance, insurance, construction, maintenance, repair and restoration. Trends over time of usage, demand, supply and prices.
✔Economy. All the things people do to earn a living, pay their bills, and make things happen, and what helps them do it.
You need to report on things like total employment, major employers, kinds of employment. Types of businesses in the community, their size and significance, trends and changes over time. Financing operations, growth and change, lending, investment. Taxes. Cost, value and and benefits of government operations, social welfare. Flow of funds into and out of the community.
✔Institutions. Who makes the rules and provides the guidance for how the community runs itself.
The topic can start with a list of local governments, elected officials and significant leaders and managers in each, their job titles, their official responsibilities. Links to laws, regulations, rules, reports, forms. Local offices for regional, state and federal agencies operating in the community. Churches and religious organizations, charities and noteworthy social groups.
✔Community. The many things that impact the quality of life for everyone in the community, for better or for worse.
A survey of what people commonly do for entertainment, recreation and relaxation. The arts, sports, clubs. Civic organizations, informal civic engagement. Attitudes towards the community, how people identify themselves. Unity and division within the community. Marriage and divorce, people entering and leaving the area. Controversies and conflicts, drug abuse and self-harm, crime and violence. Hopes and fears, ambitions and anxieties, tendencies and trends.
This list is more an example than it is a model, of course.You could easily chart out different major categories, for example, and link specific things in completely different ways. For example, you might have a category of ‘utilities’ to deal with electricity, gas, water, sewer and communications all in one place. Gasoline and diesel fuels could go under ‘transportation’ rather than ‘energy,’ and so on. Whatever makes sense can work just fine.
Whatever you decide on, though, needs to be the product of a lot of thought on your part, because this is not an easy, simple, once-and-done kind of project. You need to make sure that you have identified all of the critical issues of common concern throughout your community, figured out ways to assess and report and their current status, decided on how you are going to get this information to the community, and made sure that whatever your report is regularly or continuously updated.
The overwatch list should also become the core of your daily reporting. Your list should become what people turn to and rely on to understand what’s going on that they need to pay attention to — whether for long-term trends, festering issues or items of immediate concern. That means they should be able to track the same issues by looking in the same place (relatively speaking) in your daily reporting.
Your own staff should refer to the overwatch almost by instinct whenever they’re looking for a potential story or writing about some situation or event they’ve run across. They should always be something new, interesting, informative, important or thought-provoking lurking in the overwatch. This kind of coverage will show you’re doing your duty to the community, and the community will undoubtedly value your work.
Advertisers will value your work, too, which is a topic of the greatest importance we discuss in the next installment. After that we will take a look through a few subjects to explore in greater detail how to make sure your coverage is thorough, accurate, meaningful and useful — all the things that will boost all of your numbers in the best way, and let you sleep at night with a clear conscience.
Last Installment: Your readers need to know they can count on you
Next Installment: Newspapers can make money