Rules of the Road: What’s News?
- Local news sites define news more broadly than larger news organizations and publish items and stories that traditional newsrooms might pass on.
- The closer a news site is to its community, the more its story choices are likely to be questioned.
Howard Owens, The Batavian
An arresting photo op
For us, every single story goes on the home page, even minor stuff. That makes a huge difference. And having everything on the front page creates this aura that we have more news than the daily newspaper. Which empirically is not true. We have a lot because we cover only one county and they cover three. Whatever we publish we almost always have before they do.
One thing I didn't think about with putting everything on the front page is that, just by the mere fact of being where all the traffic is, it elevates the notability, the importance of each story.
One thing I didn't think about with putting everything on the front page is that, just by the mere fact of being where all the traffic is, it elevates the notability, the importance of each story. The typical misdemeanor/DUI arrest doesn't wind up on the front page of the newspaper. It's on like D6. We publish every DUI arrest, misdemeanor, felony, traffic accident on the home page.
So when we were still [owned by] Gatehouse, a former football star got arrested. People were jumping in the comments, beating up on us for making a spectacle of this guy who got arrested. We had a mugshot and a whole story. I only learned later about who this guy was in the community and why it touched a nerve with so many people. They said, "It's not news." And I said, the guy got arrested, police release went out, we published it.
We don't get those kinds of complaints any more. A friend of mine who's an attorney has told me I should watch my back – I've pissed a lot of people off. He tells the story of one of his clients who got arrested on a DUI, and her parents found out only because it was on the Batavian.
Last summer there was an accident a few doors down from us. I figure I'll pop in, take a picture. Get down there, it's not even a fender-bender. But one of the firefighters says, you ought to stick around and watch the field sobriety test on this guy. So I positioned myself against a wall about 75 yards away and took a whole series of pictures. And you can see the guy clearly losing his balance.
Several readers just exploded in rage that I would publish that. They said it was an invasion of privacy, I was unduly embarrassing this guy, he hasn't been convicted.
We didn't name him. I thought it was a great little photo essay of what a field sobriety test is like. People said, why don't you go out and get pictures of every field sobriety test? I'm not there for every test, and they don't all happen in the middle of the day right on Main Street. So while I got a lot of flak from readers, every law-enforcement person I've come across loved it. It shows them doing their job, what a field sobriety test is and the dangers of drinking and driving.
All I wanted was good pictures, I wasn't doing it as a sop to law enforcement or to piss off readers. It was one of our most-read posts for 2010, but for me it was an opportunity to get something really interesting that you don't see everyday.
Lance Knobel, Berkeleyside
Concern over boldface names
Somebody offered to write a boldface names column for us, and we quietly demurred – partly because I think that's not really Berkeley, but it's also because of a kind of unease with where that leads. It would inevitably lead to: "did you see who Mayor Bates was walking with?" We don't want to be that.
Maybe we're slightly high-minded in that way. Certainly things like: the magnolias are blossoming now, here's a nice picture. Is that news? No, not really. But if you walk around on a lovely February day and you feel, gosh, isn't this wonderful, it's nice to be able to record that in some way on the site.
Liz George, Baristanet
Some people just don’t want coverage
There's this veterinarian in the town who's much beloved. People had been talking about this guy. Then a story presented itself, somebody wrote in. So we were going to go over and take a photo. But he didn't want to be a part of it. I don't know if he didn't like our website or what. Everybody had always written about him in comments in such a glowing way. But we respected him and said, we're not going there, it's not worth it. We could write about other things that involve him, but we weren't going to go do a profile on somebody that didn't want to have a profile.
Paul Bass, New Haven Independent
Drawing the line
Some people are very definitely public figures: public money's being spent, the job they perform has a public impact – that's an easy one, the manager of a city department. Schoolteacher feels a little different. Even though it's a public job, they're not in charge of things. I'm not saying that's right, but that's how the line gets drawn.
We decided not to do what they do in LA – we're not interested in putting the rankings of teachers by name. I guess these are ideological decisions. We're intensely covering how you come up with standards and parameters for doing school reform, and we're going to report on how individual schools do in the bigger breakdown. But because the ratings can be so arbitrary, we felt uncomfortable with the idea of including the names of individual teachers. On the other hand, I won an FOIA case where we were allowed to get the job evaluations of managers in city, government and we published them.
Part of it is, what makes a public figure? There are different gradations of that in the law, and there are different gradations of that ethically. A lot of people are in grey areas. Some people are very definitely public figures: public money's being spent, the job they perform has a public impact – that's an easy one, the manager of a city department. Schoolteacher feels a little different. Even though it's a public job, they're not in charge of things. I'm not saying that's right, but that's how the line gets drawn.
Andrew Chavez, the109 and Schieffer School of Journalism
We have a scraper that hits the medical examiner's website that pulls in all of the deaths, geocodes and maps them, and posts them on our site. We've never had a bit of negative feedback on that. It's actually an area that gets a pretty significant amount of traffic for us.
That's a case where we saw a database that was not really searchable, there was no way you could extract data from it, it was just a flat page sitting on their site that you had to thumb through by day to get meaningful information. We've been scraping it now for five or six months.
That wasn't our first choice – there were other databases here we wanted to scrape. We've had several programmers take a crack at them, but they're just built in such an archaic fashion that we cannot get the information out.
During election season we've gone and gotten from the state all of the election contributions from people in the ZIP [The109's coverage area is one ZIP code]. Pretty soon, through the Texas Tribune, we'll have salaries for all of the school districts in the ZIP. So we're looking into different areas to augment what we've already got on the site.
Police Reports | Privacy | Social Media | Community Contributions
Comments and Anonymity | Business and Advertising | Gifts and Freebies
Advocacy | Corrections and Revisions | Ethics Policies | Contributors
Share your story below: What is the most difficult call you had to make on a story's 'newsworthiness?'
Order the Publication
Order a copy of Rules of the Road on Eventbrite.
Table of Contents
Comments and Anonymity
Business and Advertising
Gifts and Freebies
Corrections and Revisions
Participate in the Conversation: What is the most difficult call you've had to make on a story's 'newsworthiness?'