Journalists need to focus on ‘must read’ news

Req: A, N

Fledgling journalists often spend too much  time working on stories that nobody wants to read, not even the journalists themselves.

What makes something “newsworthy?” College textbooks often try to answer that question with some mix of the traditional Timeliness, Oddity, Proximity, Prominence, Impact and Conflict. The more of those you have, the more newsworthy a story.

That may be true. But at the same time, “news” is more than just a collection of abstract attributes. It’s something people want to read. Something they need to read.

Real news drives conversation. It’s what people are talking about. Real news sets the agenda for your community.

A recent internal memo at Politico addresses this in revealing the news formula that helped it rise from a start-up organization to one of the most influential voices in politics. And it all revolves around making Politico a “must read” in the community it covers.

According to an excerpt of the memo posted by The New Republic:

Stories need to be both interesting and illuminating–we don’t have the luxury of running stories folks won’t click on or spend several minutes with in the paper.

a) Would this be a “most e-mailed” story?

b) Would I read this story if I hadn’t written it?

c) Would my mother read this story?

d) Will a blogger be inspired to post on this story?

e) Might an investor buy or sell a stock based on this story?

f) Would a specialist learn something from this story?

g) Will my competitors be forced to follow this?

IN MOST CASES, THE ANSWER WILL BE “YES” TO SEVERAL OF THESE QUESTIONS IF THIS IS A STRONG POLITICO STORY. If you are not certain that several of these are “yes,” you can reframe your reporting and analysis so people will say, “POLITICO is reporting…” or “The way POLITICO put it is…”

If your friends or source are buzzing about something related in any way to public affairs, don’t ask yourself WHETHER it’s a Politico story. Ask yourself HOW you can make it a Politico story, to capture built-in traffic and mindshare.

[Read The Full Memo in PDF]

This formula could be applied to many media, including the University of Scranton’s student newspaper, The Aquinas.

Will students, faculty and staff e-mail the story you’ve written? If you hadn’t written it, would you still be interested enough to read it?  Would the parents of a student be interested? Will it generate interest from bloggers? Would someone mention it on their Facebook page? Would prospective students be interested? Students at other institutions? Will the story prompt action from the University’s administration or others among the powers that be?

To steal directly from the Politico memo: “If your friends or source are buzzing about something related in any way to [the University of Scranton], don’t ask yourself WHETHER it’s a[n Aquinas] story. Ask yourself HOW you can make it a[n Aquinas] story.”

As we discussed in Advanced Newswriting Wednesday, news is written for an audience. Your first and last question must always involve some version of “Is this of interest to my audience?”

Of course, you also have to ask “Is this important to my audience?” And audiences often find interesting that which is not directly important to them (cf. When Chimps Attack).

Journalism is a business and, unfortunately, there are apparently more customers for murderous chimp stories than for thoughtful analyses of a trillion dollar stimulus package, despite the fact that almost none of us will ever be attacked by a chimp and almost all of us will be paying the stimulus bill for years to come.

But that doesn’t excuse journalists from trying to educate the populous by providing them with the facts they need to create informed positions on the matters that affect them. Chimp stories are easy. The challenge is turning a story about economic stimulus into “must read” news for your audience.

Too often journalists complain that our audience isn’t interested in what we have to write. Perhaps a more legitimate complaint is that we aren’t writing in a way that interests our audience.

[As an aside, Politico is still accepting applications for summer interns. The deadline is Feb. 23. If I were an undergrad and had to pick an internship for myself, this is probably the one I’d choose.]

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This blog is maintained by Dr. Matthew M. Reavy as a service to journalism students at the University of Scranton.

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