A reader called the other day with a real concern and a serious question: How can citizens actively persuade newspapers (and other media) to cover issues they consider important? Her worry is that newspapers won’t pay adequate attention to the high-profile issues being driven by the current political climate. She wanted to know the best way to approach newspapers with suggestions.
It’s a good question, and I tried to answer it within the context of what I know from being a newspaper and magazine editor for more than 30 years, fielding hundreds of queries along the lines of “why aren’t (or are) you covering (insert issue or event here)?” I’m not sure my response to the reader was entirely satisfying, in that it more or less came down to this: “It depends.”
Even avid, determined readers would find it challenging to reach the top decision-making editors at large nationally circulated newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, or others such as the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. They don’t have much time for individual phone calls, especially when you consider that their online responses to stories can generate feedback from hundreds of people. But, I would tell my reader, it doesn’t hurt to email, even though you might be one among dozens.
It’s less difficult, but still not a sure thing, to achieve direct contact with sizable regional papers such as the Seattle Times or Spokesman-Review in Spokane. You’d have a better chance of access to the editors of smaller dailies like the one I used to edit, the Skagit Valley Herald in Mount Vernon, or the Wenatchee World (roughly the same size as the Skagit Valley Herald). I took phone calls all the time in Mount Vernon.
It’s worth an effort, because even the largest publications try to be responsive to their readers.
What would I tell people who want to contact (and perhaps influence) us? Here are a few of my thoughts on how to engage the people making choices about what to cover:
• Be nice. Confrontational, accusatory, dismissive or demanding attitudes don’t work well in dealing with anyone in any job, and newspaper editors are no different. They are juggling a lot of things at any one time, such as managing resources that continue to shrink at many newspapers of all sizes. They have to set priorities and make tough decisions.
One way to look at it: If someone called you at your business or profession to nastily complain about what you should be doing differently, or criticize how you’re doing it, what’s your first response likely to be? Defensive or receptive?
I welcome ideas about our local coverage, and have received a lot of good story tips and inspirations from readers. We depend on that.
• Be strategic. It’ll do you no good to expect that the Methow Valley News should thoroughly cover Congress, the presidency and big national issues, or even most statewide issues. It’s not our mission. But it’s important, you say. Yes it is, and we will leave it to the bigger publications, broadcasters and online news sites to handle that chore, and hope they do it well. That said, we do try to cover national, state and regional issues that we can localize to focus on what effects our community. That’s where we can be informative and effective.
• If you want newspapers to survive so they can effectively continue their watchdog role, you have to support them. Subscribe — either in print or online. If you have good reason to advertise in a market, buy advertising. Reliable information generated by professional journalists costs money to produce and has tangible value, and digital distribution has its costs as well.
• Be part of the information flow by writing letters to the editor and, when appropriate, offering long op-ed pieces or personal columns (although those have a higher barrier to clear for publication). If you become known as a regular and reasonable contributor, it may help you gain better access.