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Special projects energize staff, community

By Jim Pumarlo
Newsroom Strategies Training

I fondly characterize newsrooms as organized chaos. That definition has aptly described operations for the past 18 months with the impact of COVID-19. The story has demanded constant attention, and there are likely fewer reporters to handle the task due to the economic toll of the pandemic.

As we begin to return to some level of normalcy, it’s a great time to recharge – to brainstorm special projects that have unfortunately gone by the wayside. The initiatives are a great way to energize your staffs and simultaneously deliver great content.

Special projects, you say? We are barely treading water handling daily chores.

The reaction is understandable. Mention big projects and the mind-set often focuses on in-depth series that can take weeks to plan, research and write, and then will be published over multiple days. Newsrooms, no matter their size, should strive to do those enterprises, even if produced only once a year.

But special projects also can mean generating more substantive reports in everyday news. These reports can be just as “big” in terms of providing expanded coverage. And they can be done without overwhelming newsrooms strapped for time and resources.

Broadening your definition of big projects also presents opportunities for fresh approaches to stories done year in and year out.

A few examples:
Annual reports on a variety of topics are regularly presented at meetings. Statistics are often regurgitated with little interpretation. As an alternative, review reports for the most compelling highlights. Tell a story by putting names and faces behind the representative data. It’s a great way to introduce individuals not regularly showcased in your news columns. A sidebar can detail the overall statistics.

Pursue second-day coverage. How many times do you cover spot news, and then drop a story? There’s often more to be told by probing beneath the surface. These stories are also a great way to distinguish your newspaper from outside media that sweep into a community for the big story and then are rarely seen again. Supplementary and complementary coverage is especially worthwhile and effective when reporting on sensitive and challenging stories that may initially prompt reader complaints of sensationalism.

Local governments pore months over data preparing annual budgets. Newsrooms too often simply give blow-by-blow meeting reports. Instead, connect early with the appropriate folks at city hall, the courthouse and the school district to develop a series of stories that offers meaningful analysis of numbers.

By all means, newsrooms still should take the time and initiative to pursue the once-a-year projects. Remember, if you’re going to devote the time and effort, you want to identify those packages that will strike a chord with readers. Solicit citizen comments and suggestions on topics that will resonate with your audience. Your newspaper can play a valuable role in researching and advancing conversation on challenges facing the community.

As you explore in-depth projects, pay attention to the calendar. Are there times of the year where workloads might be lighter and it’s easier to devote extra resources? Planning and organization are especially important. Online project management tools can help to assign and schedule responsibilities. Using one place to check all your tasks keeps everyone running at the same pace.

I pose a challenge to all news operations in little projects and big projects alike. Everyone should strive to deliver the chicken dinner – and the steak extravaganza, too. No matter how big your newspaper, don’t forget the little things. And, no matter how small your newspaper, take the time to pursue the big projects, too. The combination keeps you relevant to readers and advertisers
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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.