By Afi Scruggs
Although the furor is waning over the Flint Journal’s handling of Councilmember Wantwaz Davis’ criminal past – the newspaper did not report that he is an ex-felon until the day after the election – one question remains: How will the newspaper prevent a similar lapse? Editor Marjory Raymer apologized to readers, but she has not said what the paper will do to prevent similar episodes from happening again.
I’ve come up with five suggestions that will work for the Journal, and for any news organization that is serious about covering its communities. Notice I didn’t say, “serious about covering minority communities.” That’s because news is news and best practices have no color.
- Reinforce Journalism 101 and review the news drivers: At least two sources say Journal reporters covered forums where Davis spoke openly about his imprisonment. But that fact wasn’t tweeted before the election, let alone reported. Whether blaming incompetence, inexperience or negligence, one thing is clear– the newspaper’s staffers don’t recognize news. So take them back to school. Remind them of the seven criteria that determine newsworthiness: Timeliness, proximity, prominence, magnitude, consequence, uniqueness, and conflict.
- Make reporters and editors check the newspaper’s archives: Davis noted the Journal had covered his murder case back in 1991. Sure enough, the newspaper quoted from its archives in its post-election day story. In the pre-Internet era reporters routinely pulled stories – actual hard copies – from the newspaper’s library. The advent of keywords and tags makes searching the archives so easy it ought to be standard procedure, especially when writing about political candidates.
- Get reporters on the streets: If the Journal resembles its sibling publications, reporters aren’t in the office much. When the parent company, Advance Publications, cuts newsroom staff, it also frees them to work remotely. That means journalists can file stories remotely, from home or a favorite coffee shop. Encourage reporters, photographers and even editors to work the neighborhoods and show their faces in places they would generally ignore. Community engagement should not be limited to social media; in-person interaction goes a long way.
- Increase the diversity of your news staff: I can’t report the demographics of the Journal’s newsroom because the paper doesn’t participate in the American Society of Newspaper Editor’s annual census on newsroom diversity. But two-thirds of the 25 Michigan newspapers in the 2013 listing have no minority news staffers. If that’s true of the Journal, its editors must ask how a virtually all-white newsroom can cover a city that’s almost 60 percent African American. But diversity shouldn’t be limited to race and ethnicity; it also means representing diversity of thought, which can lead to identifying stories others miss. The Journal obviously needs savvy, experienced journalists who can recognize a good story when they see it. In other words, the news staffers should be young and old, African American, Latino/Latina, Asian and White, white-collar and blue-collar – at least, but also possess different levels of experience that can enable reporters to learn from each other and develop a set of best practices when it comes to identifying news.
- Repair the brand: Right about now The Flint Journal is the media’s version of the Healthcare Marketplace. The news outlet’s local readership won’t forget about this debacle. The paper needs to do more than post an apology on its site. Its senior leadership should ask what community leaders and activists want from the paper. Then tell the public how the Journal will fill gaps and improve coverage – and do what you say. It’s a cliche but true: Actions speak louder than words.
Guest blogger Afi Scruggs is a freelance digital journalist and commentator.