Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

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How are we doing? Better, but short of great

by John Halverson

May 01, 2014

A few months ago I wrote a list of things we needed to do to become a better newspaper.

It’s time for a report card.

Better photos with stories: A

Funny thing. We made this an emphasis, but based on how our papers sell at newsstands it doesn’t appear that a fantastic page 1 photo boosts sales anymore than a mundane photo. Maybe, in this day of electronic visual stimulation, a one-dimensional photo on newsprint no longer has the power it once did. Or, maybe, it’s a blip and our sales sample is too small to jump to that conclusion.

Still a powerful 1A photo simply gives the entire publication a more polished look. I think we’ve done a better job at that. One reason is that we’ve used more photos by Joy Kowald. Because we’re a small paper, most of us are jack-of-all trades and not masters of photography. Joy is our pro and it’s shown recently in her portrait photos of local politicians. She’s taken the time and has the expertise to do it right. She took them out from behind their desks and put them in more dynamic locations which also said something about their jobs or personalities.

Quantity is the other factor. Too often in the past we’ve ignored photography when it came to stories that weren’t visually exciting. But sometimes a photo doesn’t have to be as much spectacle as informative. An exterior photo of a building, for instance, may seem boring. But if you use it with a story it gives the reader a reference point. I think we’ve done a much better job at looking for those opportunities and filling our digital photography files with “identifying” photos we can use with stories in the future.

Deeper stories: A

The best way to get to better stories is to be excited or engaged in what you’re writing about. We’re like everyone else. Sometimes reporters get bored and their writing goes flat for awhile. When that happens, you can usually tell. Stories are shorter. Fewer sources. Less detail. Questions left hanging. Flabby writing.

 But when we’re excited about a story you can tell that, too. Part of our job responsibility is to manufacture that excitement even when we’re not feeling it. The payoff is worth the effort.

Using multiple sources is another way to deepen a story. Managing Editor Rob Ireland is a stickler for making the extra phone call, asking the extra question. Yes, that’s sometimes challenging. Playing phone tag can get tiresome and time consuming especially with a deadline facing you. But the payoff is usually there.

We’ve had some success lately.

 Recently, reporter Chris Schultz wrote a series of profiles on local politicians (supported by Joy photos). Since he’s covered city council for a long time, he knows the personalities so that history naturally deepens the story. He also made something out of the routine when he wrote about the Geneva Cruise Line opening for the season. It’s usually a short who-what-where story, filled in with some background. But Chris did a great job of getting into all the work that goes into preparing the boats for summer. That gave it a whole different dimension.

Reporter Jade Bolack has done a fantastic job in deepening her stories lately. Part of that comes with experience, too. Since she’s covered her beat for a couple years now, she knows more background and can write with more confidence. When you start reporting a specific beat, the stories tend to be wooden and by the numbers. Your main goal is not to make a mistake. You have to be around for awhile to learn the issues and the personalities that make stories more than agenda items. In Jade’s recent stories you can feel more engagement and the payoff of experience.

 Reporter Steve Targo was on vacation recently but he seems to have come back with renewed vigor. His story on new Genoa City trustee Cheri Borowiec was newsy and indepth. He made a nice package on coverage of the iPad ad teaching initiative at Reek School. And he found time to do a nice slice of life feature on his trip to Panama. And all that was in his first week back. We hope he’s not out of breath.

Of course, there are more in-depth stories we ought to be getting into. Because we’re a small paper we have to pick and choose - and find ways to find excitement in the day-to-day.

Changes in our community landscape:  B

To me, community landscape means those things that you see in the community and you don’t know about — a building under construction, a business ownership change, a hole in the ground that wasn’t there the last time you passed.

A few months ago I chided our staff by saying the Geneva Shore Report did a better job of this than we do, but I think we’ve improved. Some reporters question whether a new store or new construction is news. Going to a meeting seems more like real news, and it’s often easier. But in a small town especially, people want to know what’s happening to their landscape.

As it turns out, I think we’ve done some excellent stories on new businesses lately. Chris Schultz, our most hard-boiled news hound (we’ll see how he likes that description), has done an outstanding job at several of these stories — the opening of the new diner in town and the construction of the new Brick and Mortar store, for instance. We also gave people a glimpse of what changes are being made at the former McCullough’s building.

As far as quality is concerned, I’d give us an A, but there are some of those community landscape stories we still miss. We’ll work to get to more of them.

Lake Geneva school coverage: C

This was my challenge and I’ve done better, but we’re still not where we want to be. We’ve made a point of trying to have some substantial Lake Geneva school coverage every week.

We did better meeting coverage for awhile, but less recently. I do think I’ve carved out a good working relationship with the staff and board members — close enough that they trust me, but not so close that I lose objectivity.

 The meetings come on production nights and sometimes that turns into a conflict. However, the key is to attend the right ones and be attentive on a day to day basis. I covered city council in Springfield, Ill., in my first job and prided myself on knowing what would happen at a meeting before it happened. I need to bring back some of that youthful curiosity.

Better Community & Commentary pages: C

This is on me, too. I tried running more national and state topics, but that didn’t seem to resonate with readers. Sometimes those are best left to the bigger media. Sticking to local has always been my mantra but I’ll try to keep an open mind and I’m not sure I’ve given that option an honest try.

I’d like to make this section more of a mural on our coverage area. Including tidbits and snapshots and writing from different readers. It’s already committed to a fair presentation of local issues through the letters section. And we have some good local columnists. Patrick Quinn, Bruce Johnson and Gordon Ammon all have their fans and each one is different.

But there’s more we can do. A big part of that is planning. If I throw a page together on deadline, I can’t expect anything better than a tossed salad.

I ought to go for something meatier — and a good steak takes time.

Different story forms: C

We have done a much better job in developing graphics that either tell a story or supplement the written word.

Sarah Schauf, our in-house news graphic wizard has done some remarkable infographics. Several 1A graphics she did over the holiday season made those pages sparkle. (An example is on this page).

Our reporters have done a better job working with Sarah to make sure she knows what they’re looking for.

And we’ve been looking more at other papers, like USA Today, which are known for their graphics. Again, good graphics take time to plan properly. Sarah’s a wizard but she still needs time to cast a good spell.

Sports Editor Ben Stanley has used more Q&A formats. Sometimes reporters feel obligated to write actual stories and feel Q&As are a lazy way of doing things.

I don’t think journalism should be graded on how hard it is to accomplish. I think it should be graded on the value to the reader — and if it’s easier for the writer, so much the better.

A Q&A with a coach, for instance, may bring about as much information as a lengthy story without being cluttered with forced transitions and clichés.

 It’s not the way to cover everything, but it ought to be another tool in our toolbox.

Still, there are other alternative story forms that we’ve haven’t explored. It just doesn’t seem on our radar screen and should be.

So that’s how I think we’re doing so far. Of course, this is the student grading his own work.

As always, I welcome feedback from readers — our best teachers.

What does it mean to be a great paper?

That’s a question we should never stop asking.

Halverson is editor and general manager of the Regional News.