15 OctPublishing Local Topics Just Makes Sense

In looking for topical subjects, many frequently surface just before a municipal election when the electorate will vote on certain proposals. For example, they may be asked to vote on whether the safety regulations in the public schools are adequate or should be updated. This gives you a chance to research the existing regulations to determine whether or not new ones are needed.

Often, a brief item in your local newspaper, perhaps one stating that a local hospital is cutting back on staff, can be developed into an in-depth piece, leading you to explore the adequacy or inadequacy of health-care facilities in your community. As a starting-point for this particular article, you might interview a veteran nurse on the staff or a family who now has to travel quite far for medical treatment. Anecdotal material for an opening gambit enables readers to relate easily and instantly to the situation. It makes for a livelier opening than merely stating the issue, either in question or declarative form.

NO MATTER what their personal feelings are, writers should strive to present a balanced piece. An issue-oriented article is not an Op-Ed piece in which one opinion only is presented. It is mandatory to present as many different angles as possible. There are always two sides, and sometimes, more, to every story. Counterbalance, for example, the remarks of the nurse in which she opposes the cutbacks with an interview with the head of the hospital. He may explain why the action that was taken will not affect the quality of health-care provided by the hospital.

In many ways, issue pieces are akin to investigative reporting. In both fields, writers must be scrupulously careful to see that their facts are correct, to check and double-check. They should be wary of using secondary sources. A news report that four nurses have been dismissed must not be taken at is face value. A visit to the hospital may reveal the exact number and show that two of the nurses have merely been transferred to another facility. This fact was either ignored and overlooked in the initial news story or, perhaps, just not known.

As in investigative reporting, issue-oriented writing entails leg work and “digging.” This “digging” makes for a richer, more comprehensive, and meaningful article. Frequently, one contact leads to another. The mayor may refer you to the Chief of Police, or the company’s Chief Financial Officer may send you to the head of the Human Resources Department.

You may build your article around any issue–social, political, economic, medical, or psychological. Articles in which the issue is both timely and controversial and of valid concern to the audiences for whom it is intended have the best chance of attracting the attention of an editor. A magazine for teenagers will not be in the market for a piece on subsidizing daycare facilities for working mothers, but a publication that is geared to these young mothers will.

Issue pieces differ from straight news reportage which traditionally works according to a pyramid format, with the first paragraph giving the conventional “who, what, where, why, and when” information, with each successive paragraph merely expanding on the points made in the first paragraph. The result: In a news story each paragraph becomes successively less important, enabling editors who need to cut the story to chop off as many of the latter paragraphs as space limitations require.

In any feature, and especially in an issue-oriented one, the first paragraph should just set the scene, whetting the reader’s appetite for more. The body of these articles is usually based on personal interviews with people concerned about the issue, and especially with those actively pushing or opposing it. In choosing whom to interview, go, if possible, to the “top”–to the Chief Executive Officer of a company, the director if it is a nonprofit organization, or if it is a political question, to the mayor or head of the town council. If these people are impossible to reach, it is okay to settle for a lower-level one, such as a department head. Generally, however, it is unwise to depend on a clerk or a secretary or even the official spokesperson since the information they give may be less reliable.

Although some writers find that they can interview via telephone, face-to-face contact is infinitely better. Use the telephone only when a certain fact has to be checked or you need to ask one or two simple questions.

An excellent source for material are professors and instructors at local colleges. Many may actually be engaged in serious research on the topic you are investigating and are often more than willing to share some of their findings with you. If they are not working on your topic, they often know of other professionals who are.

When seeking information, be very careful to avoid giving the impression that you are planning to do a “hatchet job.” Assure your contacts that you are looking at both sides of the issue.

Quoted material may be supplemented by statistical data, including comparative information. If, for example, you are discussing an issue of specific concern to your town, it is often a good idea to rind out how other communities have dealt with a similar problem.

For background material, don’t forget your local libraries and their back copies of newspapers. Become friendly with the local librarian, who can help you find information, since they are familiar with reference books and related periodicals.

Today, an increasing number of writers are discovering the value of the Internet. If you aren’t connected to the Internet, rind someone who is. Since I don’t have access to it, I use the help of a fellow journalist who is willing to look up information for me. In return, I edit his material.

In summary, here’s my recipe for issue-oriented pieces:

1) Use a catchy opening, often a human interest anecdote.

2) Give a balanced presentation that shows both sides of the issue.

3) Write a conclusion that briefly summarizes the main points covered in your article.

Ideally, the article should end giving the readers sufficient material and information with which to make up their own minds.