There’s almost no point in having a news department if you intend to passively wait for news to arrive. You must actively look for it.
OK, sometimes news comes straight at you. Be sure you are ready to deal with major emergencies.
Your station is a sophisticated lookout post for your region. As you monitor the community — its residents, groups, businesses and institutions — you note the notable while scanning for serious threats.
You scan with all the tools and resources available to you. Your eagle-eye reporters look into hard-to-see places. Your staff brings knowledge, history and a probing curiosity. The joy and excitement of journalism is in discovering new information that makes a difference.
More and more these days, the public will serve as your eyes and ears — Tweeting or texting what they observe. You’ll want to monitor the public chatter and you’ll need a system for verifying UGC – user-generated content.
Consider that the ultimate measure of “newsiness” is what the listener values and finds relevant. Broadcasters must anticipate the depth and breadth of listener interest. Does this story affect all? If this affects only few, is it still interesting to most? News Directors run a complicated mental formula in which they add up all relevant factors and divide by the common denominator: what they know of the audience.
For a nice breakout of relevant factors in news stories, see Outside Help → Sound Reporting: Newscasting
For the most complete characterization of the public radio audience, see Outside Help → PRPD/PRNDI: The Core Values of Public Radio
Unfortunately, the ND’s mental formula may include the constraints of low staffing, lack of travel budget or other resource deficits. Indeed, these are common complaints for which there are no simple solutions. Still, many departments of modest means contribute significant stories to their communities. As one rural ND put it, “we separate what we can do from what we should do and then do it well.”
Some stories can be highly important but terribly dull. Others may be sensationally interesting but devoid of importance. Generally speaking, you’ll want stories that are both interesting AND important to the greatest number of listeners.
Good journalists give public radio listeners credit for their diversity of interests. We assume they care about the greater community. We do not profile listeners in narrow marketing terms.
Anticipating community needs can be part of an elaborate system of cultivating a relationship with your audience and the wider community.
You can anticipate the “growing edge” of many issues in your community by studying trends and planning long-range coverage.
The News Director helps his journalistic team zero in on news stories by helping articulate what makes a person or event or issue truly meaningful. The best method is through dialogue: ask questions that drive to the core of what’s interesting, important and relevant.
We can use a simple four-tier system to help categorize stories according to their level of relevance. Former NPR executive Jay Kernis challenged local News Directors to minimize low tier stories (that commercial news is known for) and strive for high tier stories.
In trying to arrive at a specific story assignment, reporters and editors try to agree on three important dimensions of any news story:
Focus. It can’t be overemphasized that clear focus is what makes the story manageable and listenable. Outstanding radio stories center on people and their consequential actions. The first step in defining your news is to select your story focus. See How-To’s → Focus Your Story
Framing. Closely linked to the story focus is story framing. How much context is needed? Framing controls for breadth and depth. Framing assures listener insight. It anticipates what inquisitive listeners wish to know. See How-To’s → Frame Your Story
Progression. You must decide where a story begins and ends. The shorter the story, the more compact its progression. Listeners appreciate complete stories that have a beginning and ending. In radio news, stories are often so timely and episodic that we can’t provide definitive endings.
Before story ideas can become assignments, they must evolve from general ideas into clear visions of finished products. This doesn’t mean the news is being decided before the reporting work is done. Rather it acknowledges that reporting begins with a defined target. Assignments are always subject to change.
A time-honored method to govern the gate between story ideas and actual assignments is to invite well-honed story pitches. See How-To’s → Pitch Stories
Finally, define your news through your methods. When the listener trusts you and your news, the listener honors your ethics and standards. In news, you transmit both the truth of your subject and the truth of your process.
The news delivery system comes to a pivot point when your anticipation of audience needs and your definition of a story idea bring about the actual assignment. But first, three more ingredients:
Describe the final packaging and presentation plan. Is this a newscast spot? A depth feature for the C-segment? Do you expect photos for the web?
Delegate primary responsibility. Name the reporter who has lead news gathering responsibility. Also, name the editor who has top organizing responsibility. Any others involved?
Attach a deadline. If you are clear on the focus and all the elements, you should set reasonable deadlines. (Note: Most stories require at least two deadlines: The final deadline when the story must actually be ready to air and an earlier interim deadline when you’d like to see all reporting work done.)
Once all those steps are in place, most ND’s will record the assignment on a newsroom whiteboard and/or in a daybook planner so that others are clear on what is coming, when, by whom. See Samples → Daybook Planner
The more concrete the assignment is up front, the faster and simpler it will be to finish it. Still, what is a reasonable time allotment?
Many newsrooms struggle with the competing demands between daily news and enterprise reporting. See Issues & Challenges → Balancing Spots and Features
As stations provide more news via websites and mobile devices, assignments must account for new deadlines and multimedia presentation.
For more on how newsroom systems combine to generate daily assignments, see How-To’s → Manage Short-Term Editorial Planning
As part of the “Core Values of Public Radio” research, PRPD and PRNDI produced a toolkit that helps ND’s navigate the process of defining news, choosing talent and steering the radio craft. Samples → PRPD-PRNDI Core Values Toolkit
Another challenge in the assignment process is accommodating demands from national shows or regional networks. While such calls should be welcomed, they work best when outside needs are congruent with local needs.