Newspaper management

The importance of an editorial calendar

It’s standard procedure at newspapers to chronicle the year. Headlines typically include the passing of noteworthy individuals; the success, or maybe failure, of a civic project; milestones in sports achievements, election results or key community benchmarks.

Convene a brainstorming session with your newsroom – better yet, with a cross-section of employees from your entire “newspaper family” – and you’ll quickly have a list of noteworthy headlines. You may well be surprised at the scope of stories.

That prompts the question: Are you ready for 2017? All newsrooms should prepare an editorial calendar and review it regularly. Many of the things you cover are the same year in and year out. Use the opportunity to explore new approaches for coverage.

Think across the spectrum of your community. Here are three areas.

Public affairs always demands attention. There are the regular meetings of city councils, county boards and school boards plus the numerous commissions and task forces. Do you preview the important agenda items? Do you go beyond the votes and report the impact of the actions in real and understandable terms? Think beyond the meetings as you examine how to broaden your coverage. The mayor presents a state of the city speech. Government bodies spend weeks, even months, reviewing and adopting budgets. Capital improvement projects are previewed.

Also, brainstorm stories that may warrant special coverage. Has a longtime elected official announced that this will be his or her last term of service? Are single issues dominating a government body? Did the election produce new voting blocs?

Sports present a regular staple of stories: the preview, the rigors of the regular season, the playoffs. Team performance can present challenges and opportunities. How do you keep readers interested if a team suffers through a losing season, possibly not even winning a game? In contrast, what kinds of stories can be pursued if a team is headed for a championship season, maybe even going undefeated?

Also, brainstorm stories that may warrant special coverage. Is an athlete on the verge of achieving a scoring milestone? Might a coach notch a noteworthy victory? Is this the last season for a school in a sports conference due to league realignment?

Civic clubs are the fabric of communities. The number of groups and their range of contributions mean editors are routinely approached with requests for coverage. The “asks” range from the Lions Club annual brat feed fund-raiser to volunteer of the year recognition to a candidate forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters. It’s impossible to produce a story and photo for each event. Communicate with organizations early and discuss the two elements of publicity – promotion and actual coverage. An even better idea is to produce a simple set of guidelines that can be distributed to publicity chairs.

Also, brainstorm stories that may warrant special coverage. Is a club celebrating a significant anniversary? Is a local club officer rising through the ranks in the affiliated state or national organization? Is there a special fund-raiser or other project planned that has extra significance to the community?

Planning a calendar can be overwhelming. These are but three areas in your entire range of news. So take a slow approach. Explore and outline your editorial calendar for the tried and true elements of news.

Then identify one new area where you’d like to bolster coverage. Announce it in a column, and set up a process for soliciting feedback from your community. Lay out a plan of action and present it to readers.

Every newsroom is stretched for time and resources as you strive to produce stories that people like to read and stories that people should read. Any additional time you give to planning your calendar is a win-win-win scenario for your newspaper, your readers and your community.

Localizing the news

Localizing the bathroom bill: Don’t cede talk-topics to Facebook

A Texas editor called to ask for help with localizing the bathroom bill now in the Legislature.  Localization is an issue for all newspapers, so let’s review the technique.

Localization opens a whole new world of content for any community newspaper. It means you are not limited to what’s happening in your community – you can look at how state, national and international events affect your readers.

And they do, you know.  Look at Facebook pages in your town.  Is there more discussion of your mayor or school superintendent … or Donald Trump?  Unless your local pols are involved in a big scandal, more people are probably talking about Trump.

So why cede that topic to Facebook just because it happens outside your city limits?  People care about what’s happening.  They read about it and they talk about it – and it affects them.

So how do you localize an outside-your-community story?

Let’s begin with an issue facing Texas right now – the “bathroom bill” now in the Legislature.  Here’s now to localize that issue, or any other.  Begin with these questions:

What exactly is the issue?  Before you begin reporting or writing, do an internet search.  Read some articles about the bill and what people on all sides have said.  Be sure you fully understand what the bill is calling for. Start by searching for “Texas bathroom bill.” We recommend you search both in Google and in Google News (Google News aggregates news stories on a topic). Also, check out the Texas Legislature Online, where you can track bills.  It’s very user-friendly – find the search box in the middle of the page and type in “bathroom bill.”

The more time you spend reading about issues, the better the questions you can ask.  And often you will see stories that have already done exactly what you are seeking to do – localize the topic.  When you take “Texas bathroom bill” to Google News, for instance, you will see a story about how the bill could cost Austin tourism $109 million.  That’s an example of localization.

How does this affect my community?  If you research the bill, you will probably already have some ideas. An immediate impact will be on schools, public buildings and public universities. Check out the Texas Tribune’s explanation and annotation of the bill to get a better idea of how it may affect your community. Make a list of places that will be affected and begin making calls.

Who can help my readers understand this issue? Look for local experts and activists.  Professors are good explainers – and even if there is no college in your community, there’s one nearby.  In this case, you may call a political science professor.  If you don’t know where to start, call the college’s news service and tell them what you’re working on and ask them to find you a source.  That’s their job and they are happy to get their faculty in the news.

After the explainers, look for the activists – people who have a position on the issue.  Local pastors and religious leaders, members of LGBT organizations, parents of any transgendered students, Democratic or Republican leaders, and the like.

What are the long-term local implications?  On the bathroom bill, we know that there have been threats to remove NCAA and NFL events in the future if the bill passes.  But a Super Bowl or March Madness is probably not coming to your town, so what are the lasting implications for your readers?  Check with schools.  Check with a local convention center or the Chamber of Commerce to see if they think business may be affected. Ask religious leaders how they think the moral fiber of the community will be affected – and don’t just talk with evangelicals about why they condemn the bill.  More liberal mainline churches may say that discriminating against transgendered people may itself ruin the moral fiber of the community.

And of course, don’t forget to talk with local legislators about their position on the bill.

Once you’ve done your localization, keep following the issue.  The fight over the bill may bring up follow stories for future localizations.

When you get into the habit of looking for stories to localize, you will discover that readers really do want to see how the major stories they see on TV affect your local community.

Newswriting Readability

Four quick fixes any newspaper can use to improve writing

Community newspapers are always looking for ways to improve the reader’s experience.

We’ve improved design and photography and even experimented with larger point sizes and more readable fonts (And somewhere, Ed Henninger is smiling). But nothing improves the reader experience more than readable writing.

Some editors just glaze over when they start thinking about making writing more readable. Just too challenging a task, they assume.

But maybe not.

Let’s say you were getting your house ready for sale. Now in an ideal world you’d bring in Chip and Joanna Gaines and give them $30,000 to work with. Chip would knock out some walls and Joanna would line your den with shiplap. You wouldn’t even recognize the place.

But if you don’t have $30k, you can still make significant changes that’ll help your house sell. Throw out junk or put it in storage. Plant new flowers. Wash down the siding. Paint a few rooms. Steam clean the carpets. For less than $1,000 you can make a real difference in the curb appeal of your home.

And the same goes for your newspaper. Yeah, you really would like to bring in Roy Peter Clark for a week of in-house coaching or send everyone back to take some journalism courses (at TCU, of course). But get real. Nobody in today’s newspaper world has the money for the writing equivalent of a Chip-and-Joanna makeover.

The good news is that there are somethings you can do to improve writing, no matter what your resources or the expertise of your reporters. Now bear in mind, we would all like to do so much more, but here’s a place to begin, something that any newspaper can do, beginning today.

Quick fix #1: Many Texas newspapers are using choke-a-horse paragraphs. Long paragraphs are forbidding to readers. They think the story will be hard-reading before they ever start.

Paragraphs are one of the areas where size really does matter. And smaller is always better. And remember: You were taught in high school that paragraphs are a unit of thought – but in newspapers, they are a unit of typography.

There’s nothing wrong with one-sentence grafs. And can you occasionally throw in a one-word graf in features?


Depending on your line length, most newspaper grafs should not go over about four lines. And when you’re quoting someone, always start a new, full sentence of quote at the beginning of a new graf.

The best rule is that if you’re uncertain about whether to start a new graf, just do it. Your local English teacher may complain, but your readers will love it.

Quick fix #2: Leads should get to the point. If you are talking to a writer working on a story, tell him or her that he has 30 seconds to tell you what the story is about. Whatever that writer says, should be in the lead.

Often, when we are coaching writers, we look immediately to the words on the screen. Stop trying to work with, edit or improve words. Instead, work with ideas. And frame the 30-second query in different ways:

“Joe Bob, let’s assume somebody read that story you’re working on, and somebody else said, ‘Hey, what’s that about?’ What would he say?” The answer to that question should probably be in the lead.

Sometimes, when we are coaching writers at the university, and they are having a hard time with the story, we’ll just turn off the screen and say, “Stop writing and tell me what the story is about.”

Even veteran reporters begin writing without ever figuring out what the story is about and what the reader needs to know first. That gives you stories that bury the lead. Oh sure, it may be in there someplace, but today’s readers are less and less likely to wade into the swamp to find it.

Quick fix #3: Start sentences with subjects, not clauses or prepositional phrases. After all, that’s the way we talk. Let’s say you see somebody running down the street in your neighborhood, calling out the name of her dog. You ask what’s up. Would she say this: “Having distracted myself with helping my son with his homework and neglecting to shut the gate to the back yard, I missed Fido, called out to him, and discovered that he had escaped out that open gate.”

Or would she more likely say, “My dog got out!”

So why do we back into leads? See quick fix #2 – because we haven’t taken the time to figure out what the story is about. And we end up with something like this:

Although city attorney Billy Bob Beasley and city personnel director Hilda Rae Smith said they could not comment on an incident earlier this week in which a Jonesville police officer was said to have stolen drugs from the police property room, Chief Joe Fred Gonzalez said Monday that the officer was being suspended.

Why not get to the point?

A Jonesville police officer accused of stealing drugs from the department’s property room was suspended Monday by Chief Joe Fred Gonzalez.

Quick fix #4: Start your sentences with subjects. And follow them with a verb. Here’s a New York Times story that backs into the lead and makes it hard to connect the subject and verb:

Asked at a confirmation hearing two weeks ago if he was working with President Trump on a secret plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, Rep. Tom Price, Mr. Trump’s nominee for secretary of health and human services, smiled broadly and answered: “It’s true that he said that, yes.”

There are 49 words in that lead. The subject of the sentence (Rep. Tom Price) is 26 words in, and you don’t get to the compound verbs until 39 and 42 words in, respectively.

One of the best exercises for writers is to take a story and highlight the subjects in one color and the verbs in another. Then ask: Do the subjects come close to the beginning of sentences? Are the verbs right after the subjects?

These four quick fixes are only the beginning, but some newspapers can get a significant boost in reader-friendliness if they put them into effect.

(This blogpost grades out at the fifth grade reading level. It has an average of less than 8 percent complex words and under 14 words a sentence.)

Rural journalism

New federal policies may bring big changes to communities

Big changes in Washington will mean big changes in your county, and we’ve been covering them on The Rural Blog.

President Donald Trump’s pledge to deport undocumented workers could lead to a labor shortage in agriculture, in which an estimated 16 percent of the work is done by people who are in the U.S. illegally, The Associated Press and CNN reported.

That’s just one farm-and-food issue that could spark disputes among Trump and other Republicans, NPR reported. Those include breaking nutrition legislation out of the Farm Bill, the bill’s conservation-compliance rules, regulation of confined animal feeding operations and protection of bees and other pollinators.

Trump has talked about an Obamacare replacement that would allow insurance companies to sell across state lines, but that’s more complicated than it sounds, and it might be bad for rural buyers, Jackie Farwell reported for the Bangor Daily News.

Repeal of Obamacare could also quash a program that is penalizing 769 hospitals this year for shortcomings on patient safety, Trudy Lieberman wrote for the Rural Health News Service at Our blog item linked to the list of penalized hospitals.

More importantly, depending on the replacement, repeal could hurt or kill struggling rural hospitals, many in areas that Trump carried, Kaiser Health News reported, and we excerpted it at

Kaiser’s main example was a hospital in Pennsylvania, a state that just started a pilot project to pay six rural hospitals a set amount each month instead of reimbursing them for federally covered care, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

Trump’s key landslide in rural areas, and major news outlets’ failure to anticipate it and its effect on the election, prompted The Washington Post to add a reporter who will focus on the divides between rural and urban Americans. Jose DelReal, Alaska native and Harvard grad, might appreciate some competitive help from rural papers; read about his assignment at

One last Trump note: Jim Stasiowski is known among community journalists for his column on newspaper writing, but his latest effort warned that Trump’s success could prompt local candidates who use the “Trump approach of loud, bold, insulting statements to gain early attention for an otherwise long-shot campaign.”

Drug abuse: Why is opioid addiction so rampant in rural areas? A story by Luke Runyon of Wichita Public Radio suggested that rural areas are the perfect breeding ground for opioid addiction. We paired it with a New York Times county-by-county map showing drug-overdose rates at

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified 255 counties, mostly rural, that are the most vulnerable to an outbreak of HIV or hepatitis C from intravenous drug use. Many local officials have resisted establishing syringe exchanges as a way of heading off such outbreaks, but in several counties, they have changed their minds, reports Mary Meehan of Ohio Valley ReSource, a regional journalism collaborative of public broadcasters in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. In Kentucky, which has many “dry” counties, a study of meth-lab discoveries boosted the case that drug use is less prevalent in areas where alcohol sales are legal.

Drug use is discouraging economic development in some rural and micropolitan counties because too many prospective employees can’t pass a drug test. The Washington Post reported on that phenomenon in a story about how U.S. manufacturing has changed.

Newspapers: The Rural Blog is also about journalism and community newspapers, which are threatened in most states by local officials’ efforts to get legislatures to slash public-notice laws. The Public Notice Resource Center noted how the Georgetown (Ky.) News-Graphic presents public notices like news stories on a special page “designed to capture readers’ attention and promote the kind of serendipity that distinguishes newsprint from electronic formats.” We picked it up at

You may have seen the New York Times story about the Enid (Okla.) News & Eagle catching hell from readers and some advertisers for endorsing Hillary Clinton; we picked it up at

The rise of fake news has proven, that now more than ever, quality reporting is essential to keep people informed, especially in smaller communities. That was a key point of an article that longtime journalist Kathy Kiely wrote for (Bill) Moyers & Co., citing some local news startups:

The editor-publisher of the paper judged the state’s best weekly for the last nine years became president of the Kentucky Press Association and immediately challenged his colleagues to do better. We wrote it up at

Potpourri: One of the most republished or adapted Rural Blog items recently was one about a New York Times analysis of TV-show followers, with a neat map. It showed that television, which once unified American culture, now defines its divisions:

Portable Wi-Fi devices at libraries allow patrons to “borrow the Internet,” the Daily Yonder reported.

Rural liberal-arts colleges are fighting enrollment losses by improving connections with their communities, The Wall Street Journal reported:

Abusive teachers are able to skip from state to state as local schools cover up their misdeeds, USA Today reported:

State police are an important part of law enforcement in rural areas, but low pay and aging officers are creating shortage of troopers in many states, reported Therese Apel of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss. We excerpted her story at

If you do or see stories that resonate across rural areas, please send them to me at [email protected].