Editor’s Note: An edited version of this column appeared in the May 2019 print issue.
The most important decision every editor faces is what to cover. As newsrooms shrink, I suggest a colossal rehaul of our rote thinking about our beats or coverage structure.
Reporting in too many newsrooms is defined by perspectives and missions developed decades ago. We assigned reporters based on geography, or according to definable branches of government we deemed critical.
Immediate availability of information has obliterated that structure. TV and Twitter cover live-breaking news. Most government agencies live stream the meetings that we dutifully assign reporters to cover. Much government information is online.
If we want to connect with readers, it is best to reflect how what’s important to them has changed. We do not live our lives in the linear constraints of a newspaper beat structure. Since I left newsrooms more than a decade ago, I have experienced my community in a deeper, more meaningful way that has little to do with the way my newsroom used to put these topics in a beat box. These recommendations might require leaving some traditional areas behind or at least de-emphasizing them. I am suggesting that these coverage areas are more important than those. Or at least, these ideas could be incorporated under traditional beat structures.
The first beat might require a team of reporters who would cover the topic of “Equity” in your community. Are you covering the ideas of how people are treated by powerful structures in your community? Take apart the federal and state subsidized payments to those in your community to see if the money goes to those who need it or to those who know how to work the system. Examine environmental decisions and how they affect people. We all cover courts but covering “criminal justice” forces one to examine the system’s fairness to people by their age, sex and ethnicity.
Report the consequences of affordable housing (more on that later) and how it affects people living paycheck-to-paycheck. In many communities, the number of jobs is growing but the pay for these jobs is at minimum wage or above. The consequences are severe. Explain how children are affected when both parents or single parents can’t afford to care for them during the work day.
Not-for-profits seem to make the news only when a treasurer is embezzling funds. Yet, the number of non-profits in each community is growing often faster than the for-profit sector. Find out whether these groups are addressing the inequity in the community. Examine their effectiveness.
“The border” is a major political territorial argument these days but our own communities have borders that should be covered: between races, between cities, between rich and poor. And yes, it is important to determine how immigrants affect your community.
Racial and gender equity issues tend to be covered when there is violence or a march. The issues underpinning these are present each day. By covering the race and sex divide in your community your newspaper could help everyone understand what it’s like to live on the side where you don’t live.
Business coverage is getting sliced as newsrooms shrink. What a mistake. Some of the best stories in your community come from examining the innovation from its businesses. Patent filings are public records that reporters rarely scrutinize for local stories.
Many daily newspapers allow the weekly business journals to cover commercial real estate transactions, but these are the particles of your community’s DNA. What is closing and what is opening? That building that used to be a restaurant is being turned into a car wash. What does that say about your community’s business infrastructure and why do some many restaurants fail anyway?
Housing issues tend to be covered only when the NIMBYs fight the developer at a council meeting. Yet the shortage of reasonably priced quality housing in many communities creates consequences. People who cannot afford to live where they work drive long distances to work each day and create traffic congestion and air pollution. They lose time with families and lose touch with their communities when they commute.
And while we are talking about commutes, few newspapers cover local transportation issues in a meaningful way. Consider how much times we all spend involved in transportation and you might think harder about what’s more important.
Many editors eschew religion coverage or narrowly focus on divisive issues such as abortion. Consider covering “beliefs” rather than religion. Those views that shape our decisions come from common belief systems.
It is likely that your community’s past and present are shaped by a few dozen leaders. Cover leadership. The people who make decisions in your community and what guides them is great fodder. Learn what will guide them as they decide our future.
Education is covered according to what the school board votes decide. The more critical question is how schools are preparing students for college and career.
Finally, I would suggest that we follow the money. After housing and food, the most expensive section of any household budget is usually health care. What we discuss when I sit in on board meetings at my local hospital is relevant to our local community and only covered occasionally by our far-too-busy local health reporter.
Many newsrooms have undergone self-examination of their beats. Applaud them. We all need to do it if we expect to retain readers.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at email@example.com.