Journalists like to keep their work secret, then make a big splash when they publish.
Of course, those big splashes are rare. Mostly we’re covering routine or well-known news, which there’s no reason to keep secret. Perhaps we’d make a splash — even a little one — more often if we were more open with the public, inviting people more openly to tip us to or contribute to potentially big stories.
Several Journal Register Co. newsrooms have recently started publishing their daily news budgets, inviting the public to contribute to the stories they are working on.
It’s a simple step that doesn’t take a lot of work. Most newsrooms keep a news budget for internal purposes anyway. It doesn’t take a lot of editing to prepare that for public consumption. If your internal budget has some unconfirmed information you are checking out, you’ll need to reword (and invite the public to help you). If you have some newsroom smart asses who are flippant in their budget lines, you will need to rein them in. (At the Des Moines Register in the 1980s, when budgets were prepared on hard copy, I was scolded by the executive editor for a budget line on an Iowa caucus campaign story that said simply that the candidate was “still running for president.”)
Sometimes you will decide that you shouldn’t include a story that you’re working on. If you are investigating allegations of wrongdoing, you will need to word the budget lines carefully, or possibly exclude such a story. Sometimes you might want to avoid tipping the competition about a story (though most journalists worry about competition more than they should). In such cases, you should at least consider a general budget line that invites community contributions without giving away the competitive details.
Your budget should focus on what your staff is working on that day, not simply a preview of the next day’s newspaper. Link to breaking stories that are already unfolding elsewhere online. Tell which events you’ll be liveblogging and/or live tweeting later in the day. Each budget line should include a question for the community or an invitation to contribute in some way (with links, hashtags and/or contact information).
I wish I had some stories to tell of how this open sharing of what we’re working on has produced dramatic results. But we haven’t been doing it long. And many community engagement steps yield modest results by themselves. It’s the accumulation of the many steps, and the resulting change in culture, that can be dramatic.
Still, the early results are encouraging. As Editor Nancy March reported from the Mercury in Pottstown, Pa.:
Reaction has included positive comments on website, a few emails, mostly from people who know us; best result was a call to Phil Ellingsworth from a neighbor of Pennhurst haunted attraction who said he would like to offer his perspective on living near the site for our story.
I should note our reporters are in the habit of telling readers on Facebook what we’re working on, so this doesn’t feel that different to us. Just makes it more public to broader audience.
And it makes the statement that we are transparent.
The list below was updated Oct. 26, with most JRC daily newsrooms sharing budgets with the community (and seeking their input):
- Daily Freeman in Kingston, N.Y.
- Daily Local News in West Chester, Pa. (Editor Andy Hachadorian started the practice, in conjunction with last week’s opening of the Community Media Room.)
- Daily Times, Delaware County, Pa.
- Macomb Daily, Mt. Clemens, Mich. Editor Richard Kelley reports: “Feedback is minimal so far. I think if we keep Tweeting and Facebooking we’ll get more response once people realize it’s going to be there every day.”
- Mercury, Pottstown, Pa.
- New Haven Register, New Haven, Conn.
- News-Herald, Willoughby, Ohio
- Oakland Press, Pontiac, Mich.
- Reporter, Lansdale, Pa.
- Times Herald, Norristown, Pa.
Newsroom accounts and editors from their personal accounts call attention to the budgets on Twitter, inviting public suggestions and contributions:
I also like what the Indianapolis Star is doing, encouraging staff members to tweet what they are working on, using the #myassignment hashtag. I’m emailing Editor Dennis Ryerson (my old boss at the Des Moines Register 11 years ago) to see if he or a staff member can fill me in on how that’s working for them.
Is your newsroom sharing the daily news budget? Or using a hashtag or doing something else routinely to tell the community what you’re working on (and invite contributions)? How’s that working for you?
Update: Thanks to Elaine Clisham for pointing out on Google+ that the Guardian is sharing its news budgets.
Update: Phil Heron, editor of The Times in Delaware County, used his print column to call readers’ attention to the online daily budgets.