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.

By Kathryn Jones Malone

Kathryn Jones Malone is co-director of the Texas Center for Community Journalism. She began her career as a staff writer at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, then worked as a staff writer for the Dallas Times Herald and The Dallas Morning News; as a contract writer for The New York Times; as a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly magazine; as editor of the Glen Rose Reporter; and as a freelance writer for numerous state, regional and national magazines. She teaches journalism at Tarleton State University.