How To Break News Stories
Reporters covering the 2012 American presidential campaign were “acting primarily as megaphones” for the campaigns, according to the Pew Research Center 2013 report on American journalism.
Statistically, journalists during the 2012 campaign were responsible for about 27 percent of the information on the candidates, according to a Pew 2012 report. During the 2000 campaign, they were responsible for about 50 percent of this information.
The coverage has become so bad that about 31 percent of the people who were trying to follow the campaign have “deserted” a print or broadcast outlet that they used to rely on because “it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to,” according to a special report that was part of Pew’s 2013 report.
As I read the Pew reports, I thought to myself, The journalism industry has been a mess for years because journalists don’t know how to break stories. In fact, many journalists have been de-facto freelance press release writers for government officials for decades.
I came to my negative conclusions about journalists while I was covering several towns and school districts for The Chicago Tribune about 20 years ago as a young reporter. Most editors would insist that their reporters go to every governmental meeting even when reporters told them that nothing of news value was going to happen at a particular meeting. Consequently, I went to many meetings attended by five reporters and zero members of the community.
Reporters were covering the wrong news. This was also evident nationally. Hundreds of reporters followed the president wherever he went, but they repeatedly missed big stories because they acted as megaphones rather than investigative reporters. American journalists missed the Iran-Contra scandal for years, and it was ultimately uncovered by a Lebanese magazine.
I was lucky. I told my editor that I could break more news stories by covering fewer governmental meetings and spending more time investigating what was really happening in the communities that I covered. He agreed. Consequently, I broke so many stories that reporters from other newspapers repeatedly told me that their editors constantly criticized them for missing stories.
Here are my tips:
- Don’t Get Preoccupied By Government: The business community often knows about a developer who is interested in converting a vacant piece of land into a shopping mall before government officials. Most reporters that I worked with covered business development stories only when the City Council was considering a plan. Consequently, they missed numerous interesting stories and were late on the stories that elected officials eventually considered.
- People Are Interested In People: They’re particularly interested in children. Reporters need to regularly phone community groups, sports organizations, teachers and others who know about interesting news and people that government officials and government reporters don’t know about.
- Learn Whom To Trust: Don’t waste your time talking to people who have no sense of news and/or just aren’t interested in helping you. The city administrator of one town that I covered talked in governmental jargon and was preoccupied by technical mumbo jumbo. I eventually found “dissident” city council members who were elated to tell me what was happening behind the scenes.
- Keep Lists: I had a notebook with lists of dozens of potential story ideas. Some of these ideas were follow-ups to previous stories I had written, while others were tips on potential stories. I had these lists in front of me at all times when I talked to people on the phone. I would go over each item that the person I was talking to could conceivably know about. In other words, if I had 25 ideas on community X and person X was knowledgeable about seven of them, I would ask for updates on those seven ideas. I broke dozens of stories via casual update questions.
The feedback I got from other reporters showed that I made the correct decision to cover fewer governmental meetings. Unfortunately, their editors wouldn’t let them do what I was doing. Why? They feared they would miss something big.
The editors were mostly wrong. A few times per year, I was a day late on a story because I didn’t attend a meeting. In the meantime, I broke several locally big stories per month that their reporters missed.
Martin Z is a freelance writer available on WriterAccess, a marketplace where clients and expert writers connect for assignments.