Ask the question and deliver the chicken dinner

February 4, 2016

By Jim Pumarlo
Everyday Ethics

It makes little difference whether a newspaper serves 1,500 or 200,000 readers. Newspapers must connect with readers—their customers—if they are to remain relevant.

Two other principles are equally important: No matter how big the newspaper, don’t forget the little things. And, no matter how small the newspaper, take the time to pursue the big projects, too. Paying attention to both fronts translates into a strong foundation for surviving and thriving in today’s competitive media landscape.

I’m a big believer that even the smallest of newsrooms should take time to brainstorm the “big” stories. There are opportunities and avenues to pursue these types of reports, even with limited resources. It’s always gratifying to see the “wow” reaction among readers after the findings of a weeks- or months-long project are published.

But I encourage newsrooms to place equal emphasis on delivering the everyday things that are on the minds of your readers. That’s best accomplished by always examining the things around you.

I recall a reporter who said his editor was especially adept at doing so. If he saw a city crew digging up a section of downtown sidewalk, he’d stop and ask, “What’s up?” Other passers-by likely had the same question. The answer may turn into a little nugget for the next edition, or maybe even into a more substantial story.

What’s my point? Turn your staff—your entire newspaper family—into reporters. Encourage them to be inquisitive. Their collective eyes and ears are a rich resource in delivering information to your readers.

Journalists are at their best when on assignment—poised to ask questions when attending a city council meeting, connecting with a politician on the campaign trail or covering the kickoff of a community-wide initiative.

Apply that same curiosity in your everyday routines, and see what stories it may generate. Here’s a sampling of what I came up with:

• My yard this summer was overwhelmed by a bumper crop of mushrooms and a maze of mole tunnels. I’m sure the two were unrelated, and I’m guessing my yard was not the only one under attack. A call to a local nursery or Extension Service is in order.

• Fall in my hometown is accompanied by a steady stream of trucks delivering grain to elevators to be shipped down the Mississippi River. The statistics would provide a ready-made story showing the economic impact of regional agriculture. Red Wing, MN, by the way, briefly held the title as the world’s largest primary wheat market in 1873, exporting 1.8 million bushels valued at more than $2 million, before railroads came of age. That’s an interesting sidebar to share with readers.

• The first phase of a downtown highway project was completed. The new concrete—filled with vertical grooves—prompted me to wonder whether contractors had erred. But clearly there was more to the story as the entire stretch was grooved. I did a Google search and discovered it’s a new technique to reduce tire-pavement noise.

• Another ritual in this river town—the annual removal of boats from their slips for dry dock. There’s fodder for any number of stories. What’s the cost to remove and store boats? Where are the owners from? What’s the economic impact of the local tourism industry?

Are all of these revelations worthy of Page One banner headlines? Maybe not.

At minimum, will the news items resonate with your readers? Better yet, might your research turn into some interesting features? I’d bet on it.

The good news about pursuing these stories is that it does not mean doling out extra assignments to an already overburdened newsroom—asking them to attend another meeting or event. It’s simply asking everyone to ask the question. You’d be surprised how your curiosity can translate into solid and interesting content for your newspaper. © Jim Pumarlo 2016


Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on Community Newsroom Success Strategies. His newest book is “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage for Beginning and Veteran Journalists.” He also is author of “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in a Small-Town Newspaper.” He can be contacted at and welcomes comments and questions at


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