Two years ago, StateImpact launched with a goal to train the next generation of public radio journalists. With an editorial lens focused on explaining state policy, our reporters would be as comfortable blogging, shooting pictures, using social media and creating data visualizations as they are reporting with a microphone.
As NPR winds down the two-year pilot that initiated the project and our states continue StateImpact on their own, it’s the network of reporters who now cover issues “StateImpact style” that is the project’s most important legacy.
We learned a lot from StateImpact — both at NPR and at our partner stations. If you’re thinking of starting a similar project, or just refocusing your newsroom, here are our top takeaways.
1. Identify your “core communities.” Define who will value your work most and connect with them. These are the people who will turn to your reporting again and again and share it with others.
2. Refine your topic. Even beats can be huge. Tap your core communities to identify two or three current themes and trends that they are talking about and need information on.
3. Plan ahead. Develop a long-term coverage plan to explore every aspect of your chosen themes. Make sure the interests of each of your core communities are represented. This is where you lay the foundation and provide your core communities with information they don’t already know. Understand the key events that will happen and start planning for them.
4. Make your reporting a two-way conversation with your core communities. Don’t think of your “sources” and “audience” as distinct groups. Use your communities’ expertise to explore the nuance of issues. Use their stories to make your reporting human.
5. Go deep by using data and documents. Find out who collects data on your topic. Understand how it is collected, analyzed and distributed. Learn what the data can tell you and what it can’t. Learn how to use spreadsheets to do basic calculations and visualizations. Make friends with someone who can check your work.
6. Explain it well. Now that you’ve immersed yourself in a topic, don’t geek out and write only for the experts. Use details to provide value and credibility to your core communities who already know the basics. But explain it in a way that is accessible to anyone.
7. Develop your storytelling toolkit. Start by learning how to effectively use feature stories, news spots, two-ways, profiles, analytical pieces, backgrounders, simple bulleted lists (like this one), Q&As with listeners/readers and guest blogs. Then, step it up with charts, data tables, maps, annotated documents, photo galleries, video explainers and live tweeting of events. Using a variety of tools is one way to address the information needs of both beginners and experts — and to expand your audience.
8. Be there when people need you most. People look for answers to basic questions at all hours. Search is your friend. Smart, clear, explanatory writing on key issues and trending topics will help people find your work. And well-crafted explainers that make good use of techniques from your storytelling toolkit can entice random searchers stick around.
9. Put the “social” in “social media.” People on social media want to connect with people. Tweet like a person from your personal account (but be professional). Retweet liberally. Acknowledge others’ reporting. When posting on your organization’s Facebook page, keep up on and respond to the comments and be part of the conversation where appropriate.