Understanding What’s News Helps You Tell Your Story


Perhaps the question I feared the most as a newspaper reporter went something like this: “But what do you have for me today?”

It came from editors, usually in the morning after a long day breaking a story, scooping the competition, juggling phone calls and angry sources, and a late night writing the story on a tight deadline. Often, it came after a bout of cold-sweat insomnia caused by wondering if I made a mistake.

(A press club I once belonged to translated that question into Latin for its slogan. We reporters dominated the club, as you may guess, thus the tongue-in-cheek kidding of our editors).

This is a blog written from the perspective of nearly two decades as a newspaper reporter, with a pinch of experience from my current job as a government communicator.

It’s written with the supposition that the media and government aren’t opponents. Rather, we’re more like squabbling siblings, inseparable and with a common bond but seemingly doomed to quibble over just about everything.

If you understand what reporters are going through, you can get beyond the squabbling and help them get a better story. You can do it in a way that helps you and the public you serve – in each blog post, I’ll include a tip or two to help you think about some new ways of helping reporters tell your story.

So let’s start with some basics; let’s understand the most basic, daily fear every media outlet faces. It’s why editors asked reporters like me the question that led this story. A newspaper editor’s day starts with large, blank, white sheets of paper that have to be filled. A television station starts with large blocks of silence.

How do they decide to fill those sheets of blank paper, and that silent air time? In other words: What is news?

Traditionally, six criteria make a story newsworthy:

  1. What’s happening today is more important than yesterday. Press conferences don’t automatically qualify.
  2. Your community is more important than the next one down the interstate.
  3. A bugaboo, to be sure, because who knows whether you’ll come out looking good. Also an opportunity to showcase problem-solving and empathy on your part. People like solutions more than conflict.
  4. Financial impact is important, of course, but emotional impact often rules the day.
  5. Important, powerful people and big institutions are more newsworthy than the bourgeoisie.
  6. Man bites dog …

When that reporter is pressuring you for a response today, looking back at these criteria can help you get your story out (and help the reporter get a better version of the story).

Often, the focus will be on one aspect of the story. And, quite often, the initial call comes while the reporter is focusing on conflict and impact. Somebody or something appears to be hurt by what you’re doing.

I promised a tip, right? OK, but let’s start with some insight.

Very little news actually breaks. As Gene Roberts of the Philadelphia Inquirer, one of the greatest editors ever, put it most stories “trickle, seep and ooze” their way into our lives.

That’s a strength for a well-run government agency. A “breaking news story” is probably about something you’re already aware of and already studying. Maybe the solution isn’t obvious yet, but it’s something you’re working on.

Why not talk about that? Dredge up those studies, that information you’ve already developed, and move beyond the impact and conflict of the story into the potential solutions. It’s natural for people to be drawn not just to conflict and problems, but even more to solutions.

The fact we want solutions is more than just truthiness. That’s a fact that our brains are hard-wired for. Want proof? Read a crime novel, and see how everything is wrapped up neatly at the end.

Craig Lincoln is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Toni Messina

Looking forward to the rest of your posts, Craig. And always glad to find another member of the MU J-School tribe (BJ 71; MPA 91)!