Your newsroom might be small, but your ideas don’t have to be.

As was proven again through the first quarter of 2016, a number of GateHouse newsrooms with fewer than a half-dozen people showed you don’t need a massive staff to produce some outstanding in-depth pieces.

The key is to plan these story packages properly, well in advance, and then pick away slowly at them.

Here are three topics small newsrooms can start digging on today, with an eye on producing a piece that will get your community talking in the future.

IS YOUR HOSPITAL VULNERABLE FOR CLOSURE?

The McPherson (Kansas) Sentinel produces five editions a week with just four full-time newsroom employees, yet it tracked down vital stats from the National Rural Healthcare Association, a health analytics firm, the Kansas Hospital Association and local healthcare providers was used.

The result was a fascinating read by Cheyenne Derksen Schroeder on the vulnerability of rural hospitals, a trend that’s troubling numerous communities.

“In-depth pieces require time for them to come to fruition,” said Teri Hansen, the editor of the Sentinel. “In our newsroom, we make every effort to schedule in-depth pieces for the end of the week, so that the writer has plenty of time to research the topic and contact sources.”

The story provided some startling facts: One-third of rural hospitals are at risk of closing, and over half of the vulnerable rural hospitals are also serving communities that need healthcare the most — those with older, poorer residents with more chronic illnesses.

“In the case of Cheyenne’s Rural Hospitals story, she cited five different sources, including representatives from two hospitals,” Hansen said. “Time was an important factor in compiling all of the data into an interesting and understandable story.”

WHAT HAPPENS TO CLOSED SCHOOLS? 

The Kinston (N.C.) Free Press dug into an issue that plagues many communities: shuttered schools. Lenoir County has seen eight schools closed, providing area school districts with headaches and cost concerns.

But it’s not as easy as simply selling the property to anyone interested.
According to the story written by Dustin George:

The process of turning an old school into something new starts with a vote by the local board of education to close the facility. There are a combination of reasons for closing a school, including low enrollment, a school merger, failing facilities or operational costs.Once the decision is made, a pair of studies are completed, detailing any issues that might affect the school district’s ability to resell the building – asbestos, underground storage or sewage tanks, structural issues and other potential problems.

This can easily be turned into an interesting piece. How many schools in your community have been closed, and what’s the status of each of them? The Free Press, by the way, has just three full-time reporters in its newsroom.

LOCAL AGRICULTURE

 Often, small newsrooms are the only ones to dig into the issues that plague rural business communities — especially when it comes to agriculture.In the case of the Hannibal (Missouri) Courier-Post, building a bridge with one of the local ag associations opened a pathway to a ‘meaty’ topic — an upcoming referendum to charge a $1 fee for every head of cattle.

“The origin of this story came from something every small newsroom experiences — an organization wanting to promote an event. The local cattlemen’s association wanted a brief about a banquet they planned, which we ran,” said Eric Dundon, the editor for the Courier-Post. “Instead of leaving it at that, we developed relationships with that small-town organization and began asking questions about issues they faced.”

Soon enough, the staff at the Courier-Post realized something bigger was brewing. Trevor McDonald’s piece cited sources that were backers of the bill, as well as those who opposed it.

“By getting past the original request for coverage, we were able to identify a serious story with teeth that not only affected our local agriculture community, but the statewide one as well,” Dundon said. “Small newsrooms deal with these local organizations, clubs and agencies every day.

“A few extra questions can lead to great stories and reliable sources who will keep coming back with more ideas.”

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