How to turn an inside brief into a front page centerpiece

Front page of The Patriot-News, 07/24/08It was the kind of press release every reporter hates getting: The dreaded check presentation. You’re almost tempted to cover it, but you know it’s only considered news if you’re lazy or desperately need to fill space. I was neither, and backed by an editor who similarly hates canned press conferences, I decided to ignore the check presentation to announce federal assistance for a new parking center in Hershey, Pa. Check presentations aren’t news.

That said, my editor and I agreed that the parking center was an important topic, even if it was hang-me-please boring. So I set out to update the project’s progress, likely to land inside the local section, maybe sneaking out to the section’s front if it got lucky.

This is the first spot where a reporter can choose to elevate a story higher than your editors might initially think it belongs.

Instead of a simple and hang-me-please boring update on where the project has gone, I wanted to focus on where this new parking center could fit in the area’s long-range plans, especially when it comes to public transportation.

I called the usual suspects: A township official who offered an insightful interview. The director of the bus company to discuss how it could fit into future schedules as a park-and-ride, and how much ridership statistics have increased. An out-of-town public transportation activist to pontificate on why the Hershey community has a lot of potential for bus and rail traffic.

Since we came into this story with low expectations, I likely could have stopped here, written the usual 12 inches and moved on to work on a story everyone liked better.

But I decided to act on a hunch and take a round trip on the bus around the time professionals would be going home from Harrisburg to Hershey. These are the people everyone had been speaking about attracting, and no one — myself, my editors, the bus company officials, the locals I asked on Twitter — really knew  whether or not they existed. It was a pure fishing expedition.

And it ended up better than I could have ever imagined. I spoke to a large group of regulars who passed out cookies and sang carols at Christmas time, went out for drinks together on Friday, spoke glowingly about how much money they were saving, and were even thinking of starting a bocce team together. It was a fantastic human story that most people would be surprised to read about. And they even offered support to the idea that their group is indeed growing.

So now the story has evolved:

Check presentation –> Project update –> Look ahead at regional public transportation –> The revelation of a money-saving subculture

And the final product got to incorporate all that project updating and looking ahead that we set out to do.

For young reporters or interns who are gunning for the front page and struggling to make it there, it requires an open mind and a willingness to occasionally go on that fishing expedition. Even the most mundane check presentation can become front page material with a bit of luck and elbow grease.

More good advice here from Hilary Lehman, an intern in San Antonio.

  • Matt

    Dude. Good job.

    I’m not worthy. I’m not worthy.

  • Rob Ehrmann

    Yay! More articles about one of my favorite topics nowadays, Public transportation expansion. Great article by the way. This sort of thing really can be brought to the general public in an enjoyable manner. Since the fall I’ve been reading this blog: http://greatergreaterwashington.org/ and I’ve got to say, he makes city planning meetings sound fascinating. Speaking as someone who’s been taking the bus to work in Salt Lake City for almost two years now, gone to the fare increase meetings and seen light rail and commuter rail explode out here, I can tell you this is a movement that’s happening across the country. Not to pigeonhole you, but if you’re looking for a followup, I’d bet that there’s been a marked increase in bike commuting with the gas increases as well, I know that manufacturers of bicycles are reporting record sales. Anyway, happy Friday, glad to see you’re back.