Use your platform to educate, preview—and apologize
February 1, 2013
By Jim Pumarlo
A reader questions your policy for reporting suicides. A local retailer challenges your staff to produce timely and relevant business news. A reporter is confronted for printing a press release charging a candidate with unfair campaign practices without contacting the accused for a response.
All of these scenarios are excellent topics for newsroom discussion. And most editors will likely respond directly to the individuals who raise the questions.
But how many newsrooms take the time to explain their policies and operations to their readers on a regular basis? A column by the editor or publisher should be a fixture on the editorial page if you want to connect with your readers. Even more effective are timely communications through a blog.
Columns on an array of topics serve a variety of purposes. Educating readers on newspaper policies should be a priority. What are the guidelines for letters to the editor—why are some rejected? Why, or why not, does a newspaper report the salaries of public officials? Reader comments and questions provide a never-ending stream of issues to address.
A newspaper’s role as a government watchdog provides ample opportunities for initiating conversation with readers as well. Why should readers care about changes in a state’s open meeting law? Why does a newspaper demand the names of the superintendent finalists? How does a proposed privacy law threaten the disclosure of information vital to citizens’ everyday lives?
Columns from publishers and editors should be standard procedure in previewing or explaining coverage. Newspapers devote a great deal of time and talent to reporting on local governing bodies; a column might educate readers why your staff cannot be everywhere and an advance can be more important than coverage of a meeting. Crime and courts coverage, by its nature, draws a chorus of detractors; the hows and whys of your reporting process are ready-made content for connecting with readers.
Three points are important in the explanation of all newspaper policies and operations:
• Have the same person—preferably the editor—communicate policies. It’s OK to acknowledge differences of opinion among staff, but one person should be the liaison to readers. And be certain to share policies with all newspaper employees. Remember the people on the front line—no one is more important than the receptionist—who will likely be the first to field a question or complaint. Receptionists should know that policies are in place and direct inquiries to the appropriate person.
• Be open to feedback and criticism. Policies, to be effective, must have a foundation of principles. They also should be subject to review depending on specific circumstances.
• Don’t be afraid to accept mistakes or errors in judgment. Saying “we erred” will go a long way toward earning respect and trust from readers.
Newspapers should tailor policies to suit their operations and then communicate them with readers. Talking with people—individuals inside and outside the newspaper—is an important aspect of developing policies. Connecting with as many people as possible guarantees thorough examination of the various perspectives on policies. The more opinions that are received, the stronger the policies will be.
Editors and publishers still must make the final decision. But readers will appreciate that policies are not made on a whim. © Jim Pumarlo 2013
Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. His newest book is “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage.” 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 Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be reached at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.