Getting tied up in the day-to-day insanity of court cases, car crashes, natural disasters and local politics is enough to keep any editor’s head spinning.
So, if you’re in a mid-sized newsroom, how can you help maintain some focus on the important enterprise stories your readers are yearning for?
Cathy Noah is the digital news editor for the Medford Mail Tribune in southern Oregon, and she offered some practical tips during a recent installment of the GateHouse Professional Development Series.
The Mail Tribune has 21 full-time employees in the newsroom, and provides a power-packed lineup of Sunday projects and major series throughout the year.
If you run a similarly-sized newsroom, here are some of Noah’s tips on making good enterprise reporting a reality:
THE NEW ‘RULE OF THREE’
Sure, the old writing rule of three infers that three is the perfect numbers of examples to illustrate something. When it comes to coming up with enterprise pieces, however, the Mail Tribune’s newsroom has tweaked that a bit.
“We often joke, that’s three, that’s a story! Anytime you see three of something — three incidents or three people who had this happen to them — that’s a trend story, right?” Noah said.
“After discovering at least three fires in our area caused by people making hash oil, we turned that into a Sunday enterprise piece about not only the inherent dangers of homemade hash oil, but how legitimate producers do it — giving readers a good overview of how this stuff works.”
BREAK IT INTO CHUNKS
Half the battle in terms of planning a series is allowing the pieces to stay in sizable, but digestible chunks.
For example, the Mail Tribune staff brainstormed a series on a proposed convention center in the Medford area.
Rather than throw a pile of stats and cases at readers all at once, Noah, reporter Greg Stiles and designer Becca McGovern all worked to produce a palatable series of four: The first on whether Medford has the pieces in place to handle such a center; another on failures from elsewhere; the third on successes other towns have had with similar venues (seen at left); and a wrap-up on what site might be best.
“Figure out ways to tell story in different avenues,” Noah said. “Since the conference center was all about pros and cons, Becca and I brainstormed about ways to visually tell the story, which was a challenge — how do you illustrate something that doesn’t yet exist? (Stiles) and I talked about topics for each day, then Becca and I brainstormed ways to tell that story visually.”
MEETINGS (AS A STARTING PLACE)
A story born directly from a meeting isn’t typically considered enterprise, but that’s a great starting point for these stories. In fact, editors and reporters should be having an occasional chat about fringe topics or future stories coming down the pike that are originally mentioned in council/school board meetings.
Don’t simply bury these tidbits at the bottom of roundup stories. Do some digging!
“Enterprise ideas also can come out of meeting stories. Our education reporter heard at a school board meeting that more kids were being expelled for smoking marijuana because now that it was legal for adults, it was more available to kids,” Noah explained.
“While that figure didn’t pan out, the reporter kept exploring the story and developed a trend piece about how attitudes among youth were changing about pot — to the point where the teens we interviewed thought it cured cancer.”
PUT PEOPLE IN THEIR HAPPY PLACE
When the staff at the Mail Tribune was putting together a five-part series on a potential pipeline coming through the region, Noah and Editor-in-Chief Bob Hunter made sure to let reporters focus on areas they were interested in. So, for example, the outdoors writer was eager to jump on environmental angles, etc.
“Each of the reporters had a story they were interested in,” Noah said. “That makes things a whole lot easier, and usually nets a better return.”
The series, which is linked here, won an award for Best Enterprise Reporting from the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association.
(For several years, Noah was city editor of both the Mail Tribune and its sister paper, the Ashland Daily Tidings, which as she recently joked, kept her hair colorist gainfully employed. Her reporters have won numerous awards, including the prestigious C.B. Blethen Memorial Award for Distinguished Newspaper Reporting by the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association for a series on assisted suicide, and Best Enterprise Reporting from the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association in 2014 for a series on heroin overdose deaths and in 2015 for the aforementioned series on the proposed LNG pipeline.)