The Answering Service

alwaysWe hear the call to action all the time from news agencies: “we want to hear from you!”

Unfortunately, news agencies sometimes blatantly ignore the people who respond to that call, because the viewers’ questions don’t fit into what the journalist ‘had in mind.’ This needs to stop.

Sometimes it can seem to reporters like the questions readers are asking aren’t related to the ‘important’ topics of the day. People don’t seem to ask about where the money is going, or where the buck stops, or who’s doing the business the right way. So the temptation is to give a sigh, and wonder why readers don’t contribute more to the news gathering process.

But let’s hold it right there – just because a majority of the questions don’t fall neatly into your storyboard doesn’t mean they aren’t important! Just because many questions aren’t about corruption or breaking news doesn’t mean it’s not relevant. These readers are interacting with your news team! They are actively seeking a dialogue and asking for information! Ignoring them is idiotic.

Use that interest and provide the basic element of a news service: information. Be a service to your community and provide answers to questions.

Stories can come from anywhere, even from someone asking “whatever happened to…?”

Ditch the formal “structure” of stories and do pieces in which you legitimately show the search for answers. Show how you got the information, even if it’s just admitting where you looked it up. When you do it right, it can turn into a fun, informative story, that shows viewers you are there to get the answers.

The public radio program “Marketplace” gives the best example of how to do this with their segment “I’ve always wondered…” In it, the show’s producers take all kinds of questions and queries from listeners, ranging from the educational (“How do rental car companies make money?”) to the curious (“Where do game shows get so much prize money?”) to the bizarrely specific (“Why are sticks of butter long and skinny in the East, but short and fat in the West?”). Then, the reporters go out into the world and find out firsthand.

In a recent segment, a listener wondered how Super Bowl teams get their championship t-shirts so quickly after the game ends? Reporter Daisy Palacios then went to a factory that produces NFL championship shirts, found out how early the shirts are printed, how much they cost, and how long it takes to produce. She even learned that the pre-made t-shirts of the teams that lose the Super Bowl are shipped to developing countries. Best of all, the story was fun. Listeners heard the whirring of machines as they screen-printed the shirts, and Palacios described the smell of the ink in the air. The segment taught the listener something interesting, on a topic the listeners themselves had asked for.

To me, education and interaction are just as important to news as breaking stories. It is the answer to the age-old complaint of “there’s never anything on the news that I want to know!”

Many newspapers have already put smaller features in place to respond to reader questions. The Medford Mail Tribune runs a feature called “Since You Asked,” which, you guessed it, gives answers to readers. And their questions run the gamut, too, covering everything from historical items, to providing follow-up information on a story, to looking into stories that haven’t been covered. Recent topics have included: “Is the community meeting on Medford’s casino open to the public?” “What is fracking?” “Will the new county health building save the county money?” and “What other names has Southern Oregon University gone by?”

Sometimes the reporters will reach out to a source to get information. Sometimes they will look things up in the newspaper archives. And sometimes they’ll pull out a phone book or a dictionary. But they respond to as many as they can, almost every day, and it gives better context and better information to their readers. The end result is that their readers are more well-informed; smarter readers make for a smarter newspaper.

So often, readers and viewers are leaving traditional media and looking for new ways to consume news. They don’t want to be told what’s important – sometimes they have questions they think are important. News should embrace that, and engage with viewers that actively seek them out.

News provides a service to the public: giving information. So treat your news department like the public service it should be. If it’s done correctly, you end up with fun, educational stories that give a viewer-centric take on the day’s stories. If people are ignored, then they will ignore you in return.

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