Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What is "News?"

Welcome back! I hope you all had a great Thanksgiving. As we have now entered full holiday mode, I think it's time to look at something that many people who've never worked in a newsroom wonder about, specifically, "What is news"?

I've asked my students and clients over the years what they thought news was and the answers were as varied as snowflakes in a blizzard. Everyone has a different idea of what constitutes news, and, perhaps worse than that, no one knows exactly how reporters, producers and editors decide what to run with and what to discard.

What makes this such a difficult thing to pin down, really, is that even newsroom veterans will differ in their definition of "news".

Over time, this has led folks to imagine all kinds of strange ways news decisions are made. There are a million theories on this subject. Everything from personal bias to picking stories randomly out of a hat. All this confusion and uncertainty has created an image of some kind of newsroom "Oracle at Delphi" sitting in a darkened room near the weather station where reporters, editors and producers go to offer sacrifices of beer, cake and pizza and wait for news assignments to be handed out to those deemed worthy.

Trust me, it doesn't work this way (outside of the random sacrifice of beer and pizza to the decision-makers, that is). I won't sit here and tell you that there is a hard and fast formula that every newsroom follows when deciding what to cover, because there isn't. But there are guidelines, and the more you know and understand these guidelines, the better off you'll be when pitching your organization to journalists.

The Meeting:

Let's get this out of the way first; news decision are made by people...many, many people. They are not made by a computer, the sales department or a single, all powerful individual. In every newsroom they are made by what you might call, "groupmind". There are several people involved in the process.

This picture is a pretty good reflection of the news decision-making process in today's modern newsroom. There are many people gathered around a large table tossing around ideas and debating the merits of potential news stories.

Most newsrooms have at least one, often two and sometimes three newsmeetings a day to go over the days news coverage. The meetings are attended by just about anyone involved in the day to day news content; reporters, editors, producers, photographers, layout designers, news directors...you get the point. And while you might think the news directors run the meetings, you'd be wrong. Certainly they have input, but generally speaking, the meetings are run by the assignment editors (TV) or managing or city desk editors (print).

Every newsroom has a list of stories to be discussed at every meeting. Some stories are of the "have to cover" variety (e.g. a political debate, major court case, scandal or disaster, etc.). But the majority of the stories on the list are debated, argued really, vigorously. This is where the real groundwork is laid. The editors and producers usually have a final say, but the arguments presented in these meetings go a long way to determining what you will eventually see on the 10pm newscast.

We're not talking about HOW the news is presented, just how the decisions are made on WHAT to present in the first place. This is where your relationships with a producer or reporter or editor comes in handy. They can carry the flag for your story into that meeting and argue for your story when no one else might care.

This is also the time when those in attendance will toss out their story ideas, or what is called "enterprise" ideas. These are story ideas that the individual has dug up and researched on their own. These stories are often not even on the list. Perhaps a photographer saw something that caught their eye while driving around one day, or a reporter overheard a tidbit of information while standing in line at the grocery store. Regardless, this is the battleground of ideas and it's where a lot of the heavy lifting is done when deciding what will be covered.

The List:

So how, you might ask, do you get your organization's story on the daily list? Actually, that's the easy part. If your story is even remotely interesting, it will get on the list. At some point, every potential story goes across the desk of the assignment/city/managing editor. They see everything. They are the ones that will usually decide what makes the list. Sometimes reporters will add to the list as well. If you put together a relatively interesting pitch (remember the "what makes a story" post a while back?) you'll make the list. But just getting on the list doesn't mean you will get coverage. Someone has to argue for your story in the meeting, and they can only do that successfully if you give them the ammo to put forth a winning argument.

This is where the guidelines enter the picture. Here are the basic guidelines that every journalist uses, on some level, when arguing for, or against a potential story. Write these down, meorize them, tattoo them onto your forearm, whatever you need to do, you must remember these guidelines:

Proximity, Timeliness, Impact and Wow Factor. There you go, now you know. Now for an explanation.

The Guidelines:

1. Proximity: Tell yourself this and repeat over and over again. "All news is local." Local news will often take a national story and find a local angle, making it much more relevant to their readers and viewers. This has changed very little over the years, even with the advent of the internet where information from around the world is available at the click of a mouse. For a story to be interesting to a mass, but localized audience it has to have some proximity for it to be relevant.

When I was producing talk radio, I worked with a host named Erin Hart. A smart woman, passionate, but sometimes she missed this point completely. We were in the midst of Mayoral scandal involving nepotism and several questionable police shootings. Perfect fodder for local talk radio. One day she walks in and decides that the genocides and devastating drought in Africa were stories that our audience needed to talk about. We spent most of the next two hours without a single phone call. This isn't to say that the audience wasn't interested, or that they didn't care, just that the stories didn't effect them very much because it was happening half a world away. The audience was much more interested in what was happening here in Denver than the tragedies in Africa. This holds true no matter where you are.

2. Timeliness: This is kind of akin to, "if a tree falls in a forest, does it make a noise?" Or more to the point, does anyone care? The answer is yes, some people care, and it does make a noise because there are animals there to hear it. What matters, though, is, "is it news?" Well, if you are there and happen to catch the falling of said tree on camera, then it might be news. But if you wander across the fallen tree two weeks later, well, it's just another downed tree in a forest full of downed trees. In other words, a story has to be happening "right now" for it to be news.

Some stories develope what are called "legs" and those stories can go on and on forever (see - Jon Benet Ramsey). But even in those stories, they will shrivel up and go away once new developments become few and far between. If you're pitching an event for your organization, you have to get coverage of the event either right before or during the event. Afterwards is too late, the interest is gone and the audience's attention has turned to something else.

3. Impact: Here is where it starts to get a little more tricky. What might be impactful to you, might not matter to me at all. In today's media landscape, there are so many different audiences to cater to, finding one story that impacts everyone gets harder and harder. A presidential campiagn impacts most everyone, so that's a no brainer. But what about a series of random assaults in a downtown area known for late night parties? The actual number of people affected is relatively small, but it still qualifies as news most of the time. Why? Well, there's a safety issue involved. Sure, not everyone goes to that area, but many people do. Perhaps it's a police request, or perhaps it's beginning to impact the local businesses in the area. Now it becomes an economic story that has a larger circle of impact.

When pitching your story, think about what impact your event or notification will have on the audience at large. If most people will say, "who cares," or "so what" after hearing about your event, then you have a problem. You have to find the angle that will make an impact in people's lives. If it's a homeless shelter opening, then you have to look at how the opening of the shelter might impact peoples' wallets, or neighborhoods. The event itself might be a singular moment, but the impact has to have more universal appeal.

4. Wow Factor: Now we're just getting into strange but true territory. A lot of times this guideline includes celebrities, political figures or something so visual or out of the ordinary, that it becomes must viewing or reading material. A good wow factor is what can change a run of the mill event into an internet viral phenomenon. An amazing sports feat, a waterskiing squirrel, a celebrity wedding, etc, falls under this heading. This is the area where, while the story might not have the proximity or impact that other stories need, these stories generally make people sit up and say, "did I really just see that?"

Thre are other factors to be aware of, including news cycles, finding a news peg, pitching the right angle and newsroom resources. You have to eventually take these factors into account. And I'll get to all of those in order to help you figure out how best to pitch your organization. In the meantime, just keep repeating Proximity, Timeliness, Impact and Wow Factor when putting together your release or notification. Combine this knowledge with a newsroom relationship and you're going to have much more success than your competitors who are still just sending out press releases and hoping for the best.

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