Inside a one-man newsroom
Armed with nothing more than a vague story idea or brief news tip, reporters and editors set out on the editorial path to progress. That road leading from article assignment to production can be short or long, straightforward or complicated, depending on the story and the newsroom. Although the route is different for many newspapers, it’s an interesting process no matter the size or location of the publication. The Chicago Journal is a 13,000-circulation weekly serving neighborhoods around downtown Chicago. inVocus talked to editor Ben Meyerson over email to find out the inside scoop on how the Chicago Journal’s newsroom works.
inVocus: How are story ideas usually generated in the Chicago Journal newsroom?
BM: “The Chicago Journal newsroom” is a funny phrase. By way of explanation, it’s basically a one-man shop. As editor, I also write most of the stories – though I have a few freelancers who write for me basically every week.
We are part of the bigger company, Wednesday Journal Inc., which is a network of six community newspapers and a parenting magazine, and we all work out of the same office. While most of the staff focuses on their own turf, we bounce ideas off each other frequently.
We’re a neighborhood community paper that operates inside a city. Covering a couple of specific parts of the city, most of the stories we write about are very local in nature – the kinds of things that usually are generated from people who live in the community or local city council members. We do write a good amount about local restaurants and businesses in the neighborhood – usually not chains though or branches of larger businesses.
Essentially, I come up with a list of story ideas at the beginning of our news cycle for the week on Wednesday afternoon or Thursday morning. I try to balance it between features and harder news. But of course, with a weeklong news cycle, things tend to happen in the interim and stories get pushed to the side or reduced down to briefs.
inVocus: How often would you say you use pitches from public relations professionals when generating story ideas?
BM: The idea of a neighborhood paper that operates in only some parts of a city is a concept that seems to elude most folks trying to pitch ideas to me. They see the word “Chicago” in our masthead and assume that we cover anything that happens anywhere not only in the city, but in suburbs 50 miles outside the city limits. So, I get a lot of stuff that’s totally irrelevant to me and as a result, not a lot of PR pitches make it through.
inVocus: What qualities do press releases have to possess in order for you to consider using them?
BM: A well-focused pitch from someone that understands our paper’s mission can get my attention. It all starts with the subject line, however. A good, to-the-point email with the meat in the first six or seven words can grab me. Using one of the neighborhoods we cover in the subject line is a very good start.
inVocus: How much time do you generally devote to research and interviews?
BM: It depends on the story. Obviously, a breaking news story could go up in an hour if sources are forthcoming, but I could be making calls on a feature piece right up until the paper goes to press. It’s the blessing and the curse of having a weekly deadline.
inVocus: When contacting sources, what are the best methods to get in touch with a subject?
BM: That’s different for every story. Google is obviously a useful tool for finding contact information. Other times I’ll use Nexis [Lexis Nexis] to look up someone’s contact information if they’re really hard to find. I write a lot of stories that get started with politicians, who usually aren’t too hard to get a hold of. Even Mayor Rahm Emanuel puts out a public schedule every day, which makes it easy to track him down and shout out a question.
inVocus: Is there a set deadline schedule for stories at the paper?
BM: I try to get copy from columnists on Monday, freelancers on Tuesday and then I usually hammer my copy out Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning. The papers go to press around noon on Wednesday.
inVocus: Have you ever had to kill a story at the last minute? Why didn’t it work out?
BM: Sometimes I’ll kill my own stories just because I don’t feel they’re well enough sourced or fleshed out. Often, it’s just because I’m stretched so many directions that a phone call or two got lost in the shuffle. We have a great photo editor whose work can often be used to create spreads in the paper in that case. I haven’t had to kill any freelancers’ stories yet – I usually get copy from them with enough time to work out those issues.
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