Typically news is presented in narrative story format (text, audio, or video). Often, that works well enough. But what about when people want to dig into issues on their own? What if they want to learn more about how the news connects to their lives, communities, or interests? Generally, packaged news stories don’t support that leap. It generally requires a fair amount of reading between the lines, initiative, research skills, and time — significant obstacles for most folks.
The growing number of citizen journalists (of various flavors) obviously are willing to do at least some of this work — but they don’t always know how to find what they’re seeking, or have sufficient context to even know what might be worth pursuing beyond the narrative line chosen for a packaged news story. Also, lots of people who have no desire to be citizen journalists still occasionally get interested enough in some news stories to want to check them out further first-hand. They just need encouragement, and some help getting started.
Therefore, it helps to consider that news doesn’t always have to be a finished story. In some cases, or for some people, a launching point might be even more intriguing, useful, and engaging. Here’s one option for doing that…
For several years, one of my steady freelance gigs has been writing for the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Tipsheet — a biweekly e-mail newsletter that gets distributed to thousands of journalists and is also archived online. Tipsheet presents ahead-of-the-curve or under-the-radar environmental journalism leads with background, sources, resources, and angles to consider.
One of this publication’s strengths is that we include specific links and contacts. We don’t make Tipsheet readers hunt around for, say, the correct government scientist, or the correct report document, to begin their research or independent verification. We list names, e-mail, and phone numbers (when they’re already publicly available, or with permission). We link to specific Web pages and files. We offer access to a diverse array of sources. We recommend discussion forums and provide details on upcoming meetings or events. We also link to existing coverage and commentary that illustrates interesting approaches or provides unique insight.
This approach goes far beyond the “what you can do” toolboxes. Already included with many news stories. It’s about helping people find and define their own stories. Here, engagement is the main event — not an afterthought. It’s about storyfinding, not just storytelling.
To see how this works, check out a couple of recent SEJ Tipsheet articles: Supreme Court Case Affects Nearly 550 Power Plants and Eco-Packaging for Wine: Bottles and Beyond
In short: Even though SEJ Tipsheet is intended for an audience that knows how to find this stuff (professional journalists), we give them a significant head start by doing much of the initial legwork and synthesis. That’s the core value of our Tipsheet — we don’t just give journalists ideas; we make it easier and faster for them to get started.
Perhaps the tipsheet approach might appeal to more than just journalists. Perhaps it might also prove compelling to schools, concerned citizens, businesses, and more? Maybe, in some cases, even more traditional mainstream news audiences such as voters or cost- or health-conscious consumers?
For instance, instead of (or in addition to) writing a story about a school board meeting, a tipsheet piece might offer context and leads to help citizens explore, understand and engage in a thorny local education issue.
Or, rather than write a story about a change in the local crime rate, crime statistics could be presented in context with related statistics (especially economic) and diverse sources to help people discover potentially meaningful patterns and various possible interpretations.
Or, rather than interview one or two sources for a radio piece on a new museum, a tipsheet could help people understand how the museum relates to the local community — including who paid for it, and who is likely to visit.
Would most people want to explore the news on their own? Probably not. But then, “most people” don’t care about any particular story you can find in a mainstream news venue. The “general audience” is a myth. When you get down to the story level, news has always been about niches. Every piece of news has its own community of relevance — and every news topic offers myriad potential stories.
What do you think of this idea?
(NOTE: I originally published a slightly different version of this post on Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits.)