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Are you capturing all community voices?

By Jim Pumarlo
Newsroom Strategies Training

Minnesota is in the spotlight following the recent death of a black man during a police arrest. Racial unrest has erupted everywhere and forced all institutions and organizations – everyone –to examine attitudes toward and treatment of minorities.

It’s an opportune time for newspapers to ask: Are all of your readers’ voices represented in your coverage?

Providing as many perspectives as possible to an issue or event should be part and parcel to everyday reporting. It’s the foundation of a well-rounded story.

The examples surface in everyday reporting. Consider a city council debating whether to give a tax break to a prospective big-box retailer. Stakeholders range from existing merchants to consumers. Are you reporting the comments solely of those at the front of the room? Are the opinions of those individuals in the back of the room – and, more broadly, residents across the community – given equal attention?

The necessity to give voice to all constituencies is elevated in an issue as powerful as race relations. The death of George Floyd has generated broad coverage of everything from protests to legislative proposals.

The events warrant an examination in the broadest sense of how all voices in a community are represented in everyday coverage. How are you monitoring and reporting on the demographic and social fabric of your communities?

Here’s an action item for your next newsroom meeting: Ask reporters to identify the community newsmakers. Better yet, review newspapers from the past few months and circle anyone receiving attention in words and photos.

Several individuals are likely to be on the list, no matter the community: for example, the mayor and city council president; the superintendent and school board chair; the county’s chief administrator and the county board chair; local legislators; the heads of key local commissions and task forces. And these folks probably appear with some regularity.

Then identify who is missing. Are there constituencies who live, work and play in your community but rarely are recognized? Your newspaper content, if it is to be regarded a living history, should reflect the full range of dynamics that make up your community fabric.

Examine your coverage to see if it reflects all aspects of the local landscape. This exercise if far from a once-and-done newsroom brainstorming. Include your entire newspaper family, which often represents a cross-section of your community.

Go beyond the newspaper as well. Here are some ideas:

Convene a readers’ board. Rotate a panel of citizens to regularly evaluate newspaper content.

Solicit perspectives for bigger projects such as in-depth series. Connect first with the stakeholders of a story idea, who can identify aspects they deem important to understanding a subject.

Identify and follow key influencers. The digital world brings the community to you at any time and any place. Find local bloggers, tweeters and other influencers on Facebook, Instagram and other social media. Track what’s on their minds.

Provide online forums. Have a regular “chat with editors.”

Convene brown bag lunches. Invite community members to discuss topics ranging from overall content to specific content beginning with: What voices are we missing?

Conduct a “call the editors” night. Promote an evening when managers will be “on call” to answer any and all questions, or to focus attention on a specific topic.

Identifying opportunities for expanded coverage is the first step. Developing and implementing a plan of action are next. This should be viewed as a long-term and never ending process. Make no mistake, any new initiatives will tax an already burdened newsroom in today’s changing media landscape. You cannot simply add tasks without redeploying and/or adding resources.

Share the process with your readers and encourage their participation. At the same time, make it clear that you’ll be the final arbiter of which ideas will be carried out among the multitude you’ll likely receive.

A couple of points in that regard: Be clear in setting expectations; you can’t be all things to all readers. Weigh your action plans carefully; avoid token stories and focus on coverage that can be continuing and substantive.

All of this is hard work, but the effort will reap dividends for everyone. The ideas will translate into substantive content, and your newspaper will increase its relevancy in readers’ everyday lives.
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Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be reached at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at jim@pumarlo.com.