Conversations between reporters and editors are a great thing. But at many newspapers, they don’t happen nearly often enough and when it comes to covering breaking news, I’m afraid they happen even less.
We all are familiar with this scenario: The police scanner suddenly crackles with the news of a fire, reports of smoke coming from a house at 123 John Smith Lane. Additional radio chatter includes something about residents possibly trapped. A desk editor looks around the newsroom trying to make eye contact with a reporter to send out to the scene.
“Hey Joe,” the editor finally says. “I’ve got a fire and I need you to go out to it.” Joe raises from his seat, slow enough so as to allow the editor to realize that he has two other stories he’s already working on.
“The address is 123 John Smith Lane, I think that’s off Main Avenue,” the editor says, now shouting a bit and clearly ignoring Joe’s body language. “And grab a photographer on your way out.”
And with that, Joe is gone, hopefully with a photographer in tow. The editor in question turns their attention back to editing copy, the daily budget or any one of another dozen items they could be working on. They won’t likely think about Joe until either he calls in, or the editor needs to update the budget, a senior editor or both.
Now with some changes, and even at newspaper’s with law and order reporters, events like this take place nearly every day.
But the lack of a conversation between the Joe and his editor before he left will have at least two results:
- Website updates for the fire will likely be far and few, because Joe will be focusing on reporting and staying upwind of the smoke.
- Joe will return to the office only to have call officials who were at the scene to get answers to questions he didn’t know his editor wanted asked.
A quick conversation before a reporter heads out the door will provide for a better print story and set the stage for better online coverage. And especially when it comes to online coverage, conversations between editors and reporters should continue periodically while the reporter is out of the newsroom.
Here’s what I’m suggesting. Breathe. Take no more then five minutes (an editor can even walk the reporter to their car) and talk about:
- When the reporter’s should check-in.
- What should they first do when they arrive?
- Who else should they try and speak with at the scene?
- Based on early information, where in the printed paper will the story likely be appear?
- If you’re sending more then one reporter, make sure each knows where to focus their efforts (one can do officials and the other the neighborhood or crowd).
If you have your own questions, that’s fine. If not, give those a shot, but most importantly, have the conversation. And if you are, what questions or tips does your conversation include?