Meeting the threshold: News judgement in a community newspaper
When I was 18 I applied to work at the student newspaper at my community college. I didn’t meet the prerequisites for the job, but the editor thought I was passionate (I was) and decided to take a chance.
I was assigned to write a story about campus security. My article was a 1,000-word screed about the many dangers that lurked on campus and the helplessness of campus security. I wasn’t too far from the truth, but the article’s tone was utterly paranoid. I received a scathing review from the editor and was prohibited from writing for the newspaper until I passed the required classes.
I spent the rest of the academic quarter submitting angry letters to the editor about meaningless drivel (which were all published, oddly enough).
This was my first crash course in journalism. I was always skeptical of the editor’s decisions of the student newspaper, as a reader and as a writer. I felt snubbed by the almighty elitist media (from a community college, no less). “What did they know anyway?” I thought.
This is a theme that is very recognize in news media throughout the country, maybe today more so than ever.
How does The West Side Journal staff choose what goes into the newspaper you’re reading? Our newspaper’s office is small, so our decision-making process is modest at best, but I hope this article sheds some light.
Ask any journalism professor about “newsworthiness” and they will likely lecture you on five key elements: timeliness, importance, proximity, conflict and human interest (or novelty). This was drilled into my skull in the prerequisite classes I had to take before I could write for the student newspaper. They remain a cornerstone of any college journalism program. You might be a regular William Shakespeare, but if you can’t find these news elements in a town hall meeting you won’t make it far as a news writer.
At the Journal, proximity is perhaps the most important requirement for news articles. We are the official journal of West Baton Rouge Parish, but we have a responsibility to also tell the news of the parish and the West Side community. Our news stories are discovered either at local government meetings, on social media, from other media outlets or via community submission. The stories are chosen by the editor (me), passed on to our writers and ultimately given the stamp of approval by the newspaper publisher, George Jenne.
The West Side Journal is a community newspaper, first and foremost. The articles published in print and online are primarily driven by local interest, whether it is a new residential development in the West Baton Rouge Planning and Zoning office or an extraordinary story about a star athlete.
Finding topics to write about and photograph is only the first step in the process. Actually writing about them is another story (pun intended). I’ll delve into this topic more next week.
Maybe to some, our newspaper is just another cog in an institution often derided as fake and distrustful, but I don’t think so. Then again, I’m biased. But that’s a topic for later.
If you have questions, comments, concerns or criticisms, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.