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Check in regularly with readers

By Jim Pumarlo
Newsroom Strategies Training

When is the last time readers said they were misquoted in a story? Or called to say they’re pleased with a story but irritated by a headline? Or took issue with how their ideas and statements were presented in a story?

News staffs translate hundreds of facts daily; some information is received firsthand and other secondhand. Some details are included in comprehensive reports on important community subjects. Others are part of the daily churn of police reports, obituaries, weddings and engagements, and government meetings.

The chances for missteps are multiplied today as everyone is expected to be adept at the broad spectrum of news gathering – writing breaking news for the web and a more complete story for the print edition, taking a photo or video and posting it on the web, tweeting about a sports event or city council meeting, updating your Facebook page. You can add to the list.

Through all of these reports, one tenet governs the work of newsrooms: accuracy. If the facts are wrong, the reporter as an individual and the newspaper as an institution lose their credibility.

In the pursuit of fairness and accuracy, newspapers should consider implementing a “fact check” sheet. Individuals who either are sources or subjects of news stories are the best judge of how editors and reporters are doing their jobs. So why not ask them directly.

The process can be straightforward. Select a couple of stories from each edition and send a copy to an individual who either was contacted or who might have been identified in each story. Then ask a series of questions. For example:

Are the facts conveyed in the story/photo accurate, including spelling of names and addresses?

Were the quotes attributed to you used in proper context?

In general, do you consider this newspaper to be accurate?

Other broader questions regarding news content can be asked as well. What are the most interesting sections of this newspaper? Do other topics or issues warrant attention? Are any “voices” or constituencies lacking in coverage?

The “fact check” is an excellent tool to ask additional questions about your newspaper beyond strictly the news product. For example: What’s your primary source of news? What are the strengths and weaknesses of our website? What other publications/media do you routinely depend on for information? How long have you subscribed to this newspaper? If you do not subscribe to this newspaper, why not? Can we improve upon customer service – in any department?

Use other avenues to check in with readers:

  • “Ask the editors” night – Open the telephone lines to let readers ask anything on their minds. Managers from the various departments should be on hand with the goal of answering as many questions on the spot as possible.
  • “Brown bag” lunches – Treat a sampling of your customers to lunch in exchange for their feedback on how you’re doing your job. Or maybe tailor the session and a selected audience to explore coverage of specific content – agriculture or business, for example.
  • Reader boards – Organize a board comprised of readers with rotating membership. The individuals meet with the editor on a regular basis and offer everything from editorial ideas to a critique of newspaper content.

The “fact check” is most useful as a regular connection with readers. Be sure to vary your selection of stories from routine news briefs and meeting reports to in-depth series and feature stories. In addition, solicit feedback from a range of readers – new and longtime residents, young and old, men and women – and from a geographic representation of your markets.

If applicable, it might be worthwhile to send the same story to two different individuals to see if they offer similar or contrasting responses. Share the feedback with your staff and other departments.

Newspapers should be sincere in asking readers to be honest and straightforward, underscoring that their feedback will help direct your staffs to strive a stronger product.  At minimum, these ‘fact checks” earn newspapers high marks for showing concern about accuracy, fairness and breadth of coverage. The comments often can prompt a follow-up phone call and a fruitful conversation beneficial to both the reader and newspaper.

Your efforts to connect with readers are especially important in today’s competitive and fractured media landscape. 

Editors also should seize the opportunity to explain to readers in a column what you’ve heard and what steps will be taken to address the concerns. Explain, too, if readers’ expectations fall short of what can be practically accomplished. In the end, you may not get everyone to agree, but your goal is to help them understand your decisions and operations.

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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.