Use your platform to educate, preview – and apologize

Published January 10, 2024

By Jim Pumarlo, Newspaper Consultant

A reader complains that a youth sports story was too negative. Someone questions why a particular quote wasn’t included in a report of a contentious public hearing. Your newsroom brainstorms how election coverage can be more substantive and meaningful. A reporter is rightfully embarrassed for basically writing a press verbatim that charges a local official with unethical conduct without contacting the accused for a response.

These scenarios, and a host of others that editors face daily, are excellent fodder for newsroom examination and discussion. As a final step, editors should respond directly to the individuals who raised the questions.

But how many newspapers make the effort to explain their policies and operations to the broader audience on a regular basis? A column by the editor or publisher should be a standing feature on the editorial page. It’s imperative today when many newspapers are fighting for market share in the fractured media landscape.

Pledging consistent dialogue with readers is a perfect New Year’s resolution.

Columns serve a variety of purposes. Educating readers on newspaper policies should be a priority. What are the guidelines for letters to the editor – why isn’t every submission published, especially during election season? Why, or why not, does a newspaper report suicides? What is your definition of business news? Why didn’t you cover an event in person? Why was an ad rejected?

Reader comments and questions provide a stream of issues to address within your own operations as well as with readers.

A newspaper’s role as a government watchdog provides ample opportunities for initiating conversation. What is the significance of a state’s open meeting law? Why does a newspaper demand the details behind a public employee firing? How does a proposed federal privacy law threaten the disclosure of information vital to citizens’ everyday lives?

Columns from publishers and editors should be a staple in previewing or explaining coverage. Newspapers devote immense resources to public affairs reporting; a column might illuminate why an advance is equally, or maybe more, important than coverage of a meeting itself. Election coverage is one of the most intensive and exhaustive tasks tackled by newsrooms; the hows and whys are ready-made content for connecting with readers.

Three points are important when explaining newspaper policies and operations:

  • Have the same person – preferably the editor or publisher – communicate policies and the decision-making process. It’s acceptable to acknowledge differences of opinion among staff, but one person should be the community liaison. Also, be sure to share policies first with all newspaper employees. In that regard, remember the people on the front line – no one is more important than the receptionist – who will likely be first to field a question or complaint. Front-office personnel should not communicate the specifics, but they should understand policies are in place and direct inquiries to the appropriate person. Give employees a heads-up if you anticipate a story might prompt strong reader feedback.
  • Be open to feedback and criticism. Policies, to be effective, must have a foundation of principles. At the same time, policies should be subject to review when warranted by specific circumstances.
  • Don’t be afraid to admit mistakes or errors in judgment. A declaration of “we erred” will go a long way toward earning respect and trust from readers. Owning up right away will likely squelch any prolonged public discourse on social media and throughout the community.

Newspapers should tailor policies to their operations and then take steps to communicate with readers. Talking with individuals inside and outside your office is most important when developing policies. Connecting with many people guarantees thorough examination and consideration of various perspectives. The more opinions solicited, the stronger the policies will be.

Newspaper management will make the final decision, but readers will appreciate that policies are not crafted on a whim.

Jim Pumarlo is former editor of the Red Wing (Minn.) Republican Eagle. He writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be reached at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at jim@pumarlo.com.