What counts as a “big story?” It really depends on your audience…

I spent the better part of the last week traversing the Minnesota/Wisconsin border to talk to student journalists as part of the Associated Collegiate Press Mega Workshop in Minneapolis, and the Kettle Moraine Press Association high school journalism workshop.

(Somewhere in there, Amy and I managed to sandwich in a Motley Crue/Def Leppard/Poison/Joan Jett concert we’d waited three years to see. I think I’m still partially deaf after that…)

The thing that came up repeatedly in the reporting and writing sessions was the ability to find stories. Many students mentioned that they covered student government meetings or official announcements because they didn’t have much else to do. Others noted that they found their outlets covered the same thing year in and year out without much variation.

As one student asked, “I want to find a big story! How do you do that as a student?”

When we started talking about what made for a big story, it became clear they didn’t really have the audience in mind. To them, covering a huge crime or a national political issue mattered far more than whatever was going on around school. It was almost as if the news that was closer was the news that was more worthless. Also, how big of a deal could it be if it was happening in their lives? I mean, we’re just kids, right? Who cares about what’s going on with us?

Well, that depends a great deal on your audience, a point I make at the front of every book and a point I make at the front of every class. If you are writing for a student newspaper, at your school or on your campus, and your audience is other “kids” with similar demographic and psychographic measurements, the things that matter to you likely matter to your audience and thus account for “big stories.”

Case in point: During the last day of our ACP convention in Minneapolis, a couple students from the University of Texas-Dallas got a tip through the paper’s email. A senior CS graduate adviser and lecturer posted on Twitter, “Can we at least try to find a cure for homosexuality, especially among men?”

Screen shot from the top of the UT-Dallas student newspaper The Mercury.

“Oh yeah,” one of the students said. “I had this guy in class. He’s said and posted worse.” She then went to recount all the times a computer science lecture wandered off into this guy’s theories on the LGBTQ+ community.

The students put up a short story about the tweet, while we talked about the other places they could go for sources. Obviously, they needed to send this guy an invite to interview on the topic, but we also started talking about administrators, the LGBTQ+ groups on campus, faculty/staff groups and more. They started sending emails to folks, even as more reactions hit Twitter and emails came to the paper. It seems this was not a one-off for this guy, and a lot of students were really uncomfortable about his class. (“All CS majors are required to take the class this guy teaches,” one of the students told me.)

We talked about the concept of a “tick tock” story, which involved posting the original story and then updating the top end of the story with short, time-stamped blurbs each time another source weighed in or a big event came through. That way,  they didn’t have to rewrite the whole story each time new info came in and they could keep people aware of the updates.

The story continued to build steam, with local TV and press getting tipped to the students’ story, and things continuing to get bigger and bigger. The instructor had the tweet banned from Twitter and he subsequently killed his account. It continues to evolve and I don’t think this is even close to over yet.

Why was this a big story? Sure, we could make the case that this kind of behavior is totally unacceptable and should be a big story, no matter where it happens. However, the reason this thing gained traction is the point of this piece, so let’s look at a couple key aspects of what made this a “big” story:

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE: The students at The Mercury knew this mattered to their readership, not only because they had received emails about it, but also because the campus had several strong equity groups on campus. The Gender Center, the Rainbow Alliance, Pride at UTD and other organizations were prominent and active on their campus. A tweet like this is inexcusable regardless of audience, but knowing that these groups represented a swath of the audience meant that covering this topic was important to them.

The students also knew their audience included a lot of CS majors on the campus, so a lot of folks had contact with the department and probably this instructor. (The department’s website pitches itself as “one of the largest CS departments,” so on a campus of nearly 30,000 students, that’s a big chunk of folks.) These people are likely to have an interest in what is happening on their campus, in their major and in regard to issues that resonate with multiple groups within the student population.

Other stories about the war in Ukraine or the fires in London might seem like they are far more important than an ignorant tweet, but not to this audience at this point in time. Other media outlets can cover those things and inform people about them. The audience at UTD needed the Mercury to focus on what mattered to them, and this was it at that moment.

UNDERSTAND SHARED EXPERIENCES: Key in that initial story was the idea that “everybody” was dealing with this guy or this situation. While a universal like that is rarely true, it does tap into an important idea for student journalists: Look for things to which a lot of people can relate.

In the high school workshop, we were talking about a variety of things that could make for good stories when I broke out the topic of a dress code. The reason was, my own kid had gotten nailed for some sort of violation related to whatever the Omro School District thinks is “too much” for people to handle. Immediately, one student told a story about how she got dress coded for a pants suit that had full sleeves, but was topped with spaghetti straps. Another talked about how certain teachers always seemed to target certain people. Then, others chimed in with stories.

Suddenly, we had a pretty good riff going and stories started pouring in:

  • Why is it that the dress code has about 912,230 things that girls can get nailed for, but only one real rule for boys (wear pants)?
  • What is the most common dress code offense in the school?
  • Who hands out the most dress code violations?
  • When was this created and how can it get changed?

The one that got to me was one I’d heard before: “A teacher told me I had to  put on a sweatshirt because ‘boys will be boys,'” one young lady said in the high school session. OK, so I have to dress my kid like a Mennonite because you never taught your boy to keep his hands to himself? Is that where we’re going? Go to hell…

A professional journalist at a national newspaper probably doesn’t care about this topic, unless it gets a lot bigger and a lot more sinister. However, the shared experiences among these people said, “This is a  story for our audience and we’re all dealing with it.”

I’ve seen similar stories emerge at the college level about lousy jobs or poor working conditions. In one case, I had five or six people talking about being hosts or wait staff at “supper club” restaurants around the state and how terrible it was. In a couple  cases, the women had gotten groped or otherwise treated like they were sexual appetizers on the menu, just above the mozzarella sticks. Then, they started telling stories of bosses who told them things like, “It’s not that bad.” or “He’s a really big deal around here, so just hang in there.” or “You know you’ll get a big tip.” Eeesh…

What makes people pay attention to a story is when they feel connected to it in some way. That’s where shared experiences come into play with things like this. Look for the things like classes, jobs, groups, experiences and more that are shared among  your peers and you start seeing big stories.

LOOK FOR THE IMPACT OF SELF-INTEREST: Of the FOCII elements we discuss in the book (Fame, Oddity, Conflict, Immediacy and Impact) the one that gets overlooked a lot is impact. I don’t know why journalists tend to ignore it with the “You’ll figure it out for yourself” approach to the readership, but I’ve seen it a lot in the things I read.

When I worked at the Columbia Missourian, we had the phrase “This matters because…” at the top of every story a student wrote for the paper. They had to finish that phrase to the satisfaction of an editor before they could write their piece. This made them focus on the concept of impact, particularly as it related to the audience.  If they couldn’t do it,  they didn’t have a really great handle on the story.

This isn’t a student-journalism problem, but it’s an all-journalism problem. I remember reading a lot about a crisis at our UWO Foundation a few years back and how several improper fiscal moves put the whole place in peril. I walked into my reporting class and asked them how big of a deal it was to them and I was met with stunned silence.

“How many of you have scholarships? I asked.

Every hand went up.

“Where do you think that money lives?”

Suddenly, I had a room filled with terrified faces and anxiety-riddled students. When I gave them a break during the class, instead of looking through their Instagram feeds or playing games, they were frantically Googling “UWO Foundation Bankruptcy” and the names of their scholarships.

I didn’t blame the students for not initially making the connection, but rather I blamed the writers and reporters who put out the “big story” of millions of dollars and high-level administrators, without ever once saying, “OK, so this is what it means to YOU, the individual reader at X level of involvement.”

For a story to truly be “big” it has to have an impact on the people reading it. I’ll be honest, I read about floods and disasters halfway across the world every day and don’t think that much of them. I know as a citizen of the planet, I should care, but I really lack the ability to get into a story like that, and I don’t think I’m alone. However, if it’s happening to my hometown, or it’s happening to my kid, or it’s happening to me, I’m paying attention.

Self-interest is a natural human emotion, so take advantage of that when you’re working on your stories. Instead of talking about how many millions of dollars something will cost overall, look at how much it will cost an average reader. Instead of broad-stroking a story about a school policy, look at what it will do to an average student (or in the case of dress codes, what it will do the average male and average female student and then ask why that’s so damned different…).

The stories that matter to readers really are the big stories. You don’t have to cure cancer to make the readers care.

One thought on “What counts as a “big story?” It really depends on your audience…

  1. I feel the struggle, lol. Local news, campus news is fertile ground for students to have immediate impact on their readers. It might start with simple awareness, but it can be transformative to impact students as a whole — for the general student population, but also the newspaper’s staff ability to develop stories in general, too.

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