Imagine three baskets in your newsroom – and you have to put every story in one of the three baskets.
One is labeled what, another one so what, and the last is now what? The idea of the baskets, the brainchild of Washington Post reporter Chris Cillizza, comes from the reality that journalism has shifted away from being a “what happened” field.
Modern journalism was built on reporting what happened. We brought the news to America. People turned to newspapers to find out what was happening in their world. But that franchise has been eroding at the hands of first radio, then TV, then the Internet. For several decades now, our major metro newspapers have not been the primary medium people turned to for up-to-date information.
But community newspapers were different. Our job is not to cover the world or the nation or even the state. It’s to cover our city and county. And often, we were literally the only game in town – the only medium that had the reporters to go out and cover the news in print and photographs. People could read their news in the paper or in our online editions.
So whether it was a school board meeting or a football game or the county fair or a fatality accident just outside of town, we had complete and accurate information – and pictures. Sure, maybe people heard about the accident or talked about it at the coffee shop, but when the paper came out we satisfied their news hunger for complete information. They may have known who won the football game, but we gave them the quarterback’s completion stats, the number of tackles the star linebacker made, the post-game comments of the coach, and a rundown on next week’s opponent.
Radio and TV and the Web ate into the hard news franchise of the metros, but for community papers – not so much.
Until social media.
Facebook now has 1.6 billion users, more than 60 percent of whom are logged in for at least 20 minutes a day, according to the Economist. Contrast that with the Washington Post, which has the biggest Web traffic of any U.S. publisher. The Post received 73 million visits during the entire month of March, with readers spending an average of one to three minutes per visit.
No matter how small or isolated your community, people are spending lots of time on Facebook every day. When they hear about news, they share it – with pictures. It’s an axiom that a lie can spread halfway around the world while truth is putting on its boots. The modern media equivalent of that is that news can spread through your community while you are figuring out who should write the story.
So if your newspaper’s claim to fame is being first with the news, that ship has probably long since sailed. If you tell people only what they already know, they’ll think you are irrelevant. And nothing is so damning to a newspaper as the reputation that it contains “old news.”
Facebook is not a “detail” medium. Facebook readers get only the big picture, the major points of the news. But when we write that same story, what do we lead with? The big picture, the major points — so it’s the readers’ perspective that we’re telling them what they already know.
Of course, we still need to print the what-happened news, but there has to be more. As we move more of the breaking news to social media and our online edition (because you may be a weekly in print, but you have to be a daily online and in social media), that means we need to focus more on the other two boxes – so what and now what.
We don’t just tell readers what happened at City Council. We look for how those actions will impact citizens. What will that mean for their safety or their pocketbook or the economic future of the community? We do a rundown of the what-happened, but we focus on its impact on the community and on our readers.
So perhaps the school board has voted to reduce the teaching faculty in elementary schools as a cost-cutting measure. What will that mean to class sizes? How will it impact student learning and test scores? What do teachers think? A budget saving proposal might look good until your realize that your kid’s third-grade class will go from 25 to 34 kids – and the students with learning problems will be the most adversely affected.
Unfortunately, this kind of reporting takes more time. It’s a lot easier to take notes at a meeting and produce a story that reports votes and quotes from the participants.
The real issue here is staying relevant for our readers. And if it takes re-thinking our stories – classifying each as a what or so what or now what story, that will be time well-spent.
Note: This blogpost has focused on news coverage. To see how this same idea impacts sports coverage, see our earlier blogpost.