If it’s not “new,” it’s not “news:” 3 ways to fix bad time pegs

The word “news” has the word “new” baked right into it, so it shouldn’t be hard for anyone to see why we tend to value immediacy as a key interest element. Fresher content always matters more, which is why Tuesday’s story in the Oshkosh Northwestern about the financial hardships at our area outlet mall gave me pause:

OSHKOSH – A court has appointed a receiver to oversee the finances and operation of the struggling The Outlet Shoppes at Oshkosh.

Winnebago County Circuit Judge Barbara Key appointed the receiver in late August in connection to a foreclosure lawsuit brought by Wilmington Trust, National Association, a Buffalo-based financial services firm.

In the lawsuit, Wilmington Trust claims BFO Factory Shoppes LLC has not made a mortgage payment since March on a $54.7 million loan it used in 2015 to finance the Oshkosh mall and several other properties. The July 28 foreclosure action demanded immediate payment of the loan’s $52 million outstanding balance.

The lead lacks a time element, which isn’t always a deal-breaker for longer stories. However, when we get into the second and third paragraph, we get some pretty weak time pegs, such as “late August” and “July 28 foreclosure action.”

We used to joke around the newsroom that stories were like fish: Fresh is best, but after they get a couple days old, they really start to go bad. To that end, here’s another “don’t sniff too hard” story that ran Tuesday, this one about one of our senators discussing the chaos in Kenosha:

MADISON – U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson in a recent interview said those responsible for violence and destruction in Kenosha may be using pandemic unemployment benefits or are being funded in other ways to travel around the country to create havoc. 

Johnson, chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs, said groups that set fire to buildings and looted in Kenosha are likely part of a coordinated effort. 

“They picked up stakes and probably headed out to D.C. to harass the people who went to President Trump’s acceptance speech including people like Sen. Rand Paul,” Johnson said of violent and destructive protesters after more National Guard troops were deployed to the area. “This is an outside insurgency.”

Johnson made his comments in a Thursday appearance on a conservative talk radio show hosted by Vicki McKenna.

The “in a recent interview” is an attempt to freshen the lead, something we often do in writing. That said, this was like trying to spray a half can of Axe Body Spray on the rotting carcass of a dead salmon. That’s especially true when we get all the way down to the FOURTH paragraph where the writer kind of quietly notes that this happened almost a week ago.

The question I had for all of this was, “Why am I learning about this now?” You better have a reason for that question other than, “Well, I just figured this thing out that has been happening for about a week and a half, so I figured I’d go for it…” Reporters joke that including the word “recently” in a story meant “I lost the damned press release.”

If you don’t have a good reason for running the piece now, you probably want to hold onto it until you do. Truth be told, you can always find a good reason to run a story. Since being timely matters a great deal, consider a few pointers in regard to improving the time pegs with your stories:

Answer the “why now?” question: In many cases, there is a time peg in the story. You just have to work harder to find it than if you caught the story on the first bounce. Look at what’s coming up next in the story. It could be a new court  element that’s coming up:

The Oshkosh Outlet Mall faces a total closure by Christmas if a court hearing next week/month/Friday/whatever finds the receivership group can’t stanch the bleeding.

Very few stories of any consequence start and stop with a single event, so dig into what’s there and see what is going to happen next or what’s happening now. Don’t be content to bury the time peg because it’s terrible.

Freshen up your reporting: If you find that you got beaten on a story, or that a story was going on for quite a while while you were pondering the mysteries of some other universe, you can always find a way to freshen it up. It just requires additional reporting. For example, on the Ron Johnson piece, pick up the phone and ask someone in the senator’s office for some clarification on his comments. That can give you something like this:

Sen. Ron Johnson has proof that a liberal group of “gypsies, tramps and thieves” is responsible for destroying Kenosha, a representative for his office said Tuesday.
“He wouldn’t have said it on live air if he didn’t have proof,” spokeswoman Wanda Thinkaboutit said, referring to Johnson’s Thursday interview with conservative talk-show host Vicki McKenna.

You can also go to get “the other side” of this, reaching out to the people accused of whatever the heck Johnson is accusing them of:

The rage felt in Kenosha is real, not a liberal conspiracy, members of local civil rights groups said Tuesday in response to Sen. Ron Johnson’s accusations last week.

You can also do more reporting to advance a story, like looking at the people involved in it a bit more deeply and interviewing them. In this case, the story notes about 732 paragraphs in the name of the receivership group and that it declined multiple requests for interviews. OK, fine. Go the other way and interview the court folks. Or interview someone from the mall’s ownership group. Or find an expert:

It could take more than two years to sort out the financial mess that placed the Oshkosh Outlet Mall into receivership, a bankruptcy expert said Tuesday.
“It took five years for them to get into this mess, so it’ll take at least twice that long for a receiver to get them out of it,” Longfellow of Finance professor James McDougall said. “There’s no real way to know what goes into a business that complex.”

THEN you can dig back into the stuff that happened a while back.

Find a trend: If you are already late on the story, figure out if the story is bigger than the one you missed. It could be something like the death of outlet malls, the end of brick-and-mortar stores, the ownership company’s track record on these things or whatever.

As far as the Ron Johnson story goes, it could be a long line of weird stuff he said to radio hosts. If you are already behind, dig in deeper behind the story and see how you can make it longer and better.

In either case, you could strongly improve the work by showing that this wasn’t just a one-off situation. The important thing about telling stories is to always have the best picture possible when showcasing whatever it was that you wanted people to know. If that’s a bigger picture, great. If that’s a worm’s eye view of something, hey, that works, too. The goals is to do more than tell people, “I found this thing. It might or might not have value.”


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