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Citizen Journalism 101: Enterprise Journalism

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      Sometimes, good news will literally walk through the front door. But, more often than not, the best stories require a lot of research and digging. Some call this muckraking. Others call it investigative journalism.

      Regardless of what you want to call it, the proper term is “enterprise journalism.”

      Every time you develop a story solely on research and a desire to answer your own questions, you are engaging in enterprise journalism. If you’re working off of a press release, you’re not really being an “enterprising reporter.”

      The best way to be successful at enterprise journalism it to know where to look for good story leads.

      Right now, many of the nation’s major newspapers have run away from enterprise journalism, citing a lack of resources. How ironic, considering we now have more information at our immediate disposal than at any other time in recorded history.

      That is why they call it the Information Age.

      So, this week we’re going to look at information sources that can be highly useful to citizen journalists who are committed to serving their communities. Of course, we’ll look at them from the perspective of my home state, Iowa, but many of the same resources are available in nearly every state.

      For a healthy listing of resources for journalists, visit this link.

Federal Government

      The U.S. federal government’s public records law is comprised in the Freedom of Information Act. Sadly, the act doesn’t have a lot of teeth in it, and government agencies seem to know that, so compliance is far from perfect.

Local Government

      In Iowa, “local government” includes cities, counties, and local school districts. The best way to know what is going on at those levels of government is to physically attend meetings, or to show up and request information face-to-face.

      Iowa’s “sunshine laws” are contained in chapters 21 and 22 of the Code of Iowa. They are purposely written to be easily interpreted by both government officials, as well as the general public. And, when ambiguity exists — and there is a lot of that — the intent of the law is to assume openness.

      In other words, if the law doesn’t prohibit public access to information, it is assumed to be public information. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy to get the information you are looking for. In those cases, it’s always good to just walk up to City Hall and ask for it.

      One important rule to remember: you never have to tell a public official who you are, or even why you need the information, in order to expect compliance. Requests don’t have to be made in writing, but sometimes it’s helpful, especially if your request is somewhat complicated.

      The Iowa Attorney General’s Office website provides a number of useful tips and points of law to consider.

      Iowa cities, particularly in light of recent budget woes, generally don’t provide a lot of public information online. But, there is a little bit of useful information you can find on the Internet. In Iowa, all public notices must be published in a local newspaper of general distribution, but you may also find many of those records online at, a website maintained by the Iowa Newspaper Association.

State Government

      The State of Iowa is arguably one of the most transparent in the U.S., but that shouldn’t be construed as a blanket endorsement of every governmental agency. And, sometimes, documents that arguably would seem public in nature have been deemed confidential.

      Like local government, access to state government records is governed by chapters 21 and 22 of the Code of Iowa. But, other chapters of the code will supersede those provisions of Iowa law. If a government official says information is confidential, ask him or her to specify what provision of Iowa law makes the information protected from public scrutiny.

      Some important pieces of information that are deemed public information in Iowa include: public employee salaries, expense reports, and tax returns; governmental bodies’ budgets, budget amendments, and itemized monthly expenses; voter registration information; driver’s license applications; concealed weapons permit holders; and governmental building inspection reports.

Useful Websites

      There are a number of very useful websites you can research for good story ideas. Here are just a few of the best sites I have used to generate quality enterprise projects.

      Department of Inspections & Appeals: visit this website to find out about inspections of healthcare facilities, restaurant inspections, and inspections of amusement park rides and elevators.

      Department of Natural Resources: visit this website to find out about air quality inspections, beach monitoring reports, a database of contaminated sites in the state, current confined animal feeding operation permits, and literally thousands of other important pieces of information.

      Department of Education: visit this website to find out about No Child Left Behind annual reports, building maintenance and inspection reports, enrollment and projections, area education agency annual progress reports, comprehensive school improvement plans, student achievement data, and thousands of other data collections.

      Department of Corrections: visit this website to find out the status of those currently incarcerated in the state penal system, or to look up data on annual performance reports, as well as comprehensive long-range plans for expansion of corrections facilities in the state.

      Judicial Department: visit this website to find out about current and pending litigation before the Iowa Supreme Court, as well as criminal and civil proceedings in the state’s district court system.

      General Assembly: visit this website to stay up to date on the state legislature. You can research bills that have been submitted, as well as current Iowa Code. The fiscal bureau also provides information about state spending and current and projected budget information.

      This shouldn’t be construed as a comprehensive listing of useful government websites, but they are certainly some of the best for developing useful news articles. Beyond these, one of the most useful websites for information is the State Data Center of Iowa website.

If You Need Help

      Iowa also provides assistance to citizens who are having difficulties in obtaining public information. The Citizen’s Aide/Ombudsman Office takes these complaints and works to reach a successful resolution of the public information request.

      Sadly, the office is underfunded and overtasked, and Iowa Code doesn’t currently provide a lot of teeth to its sunshine laws. Current legislation may change that for citizens’ benefit, so there is real promise of improvement in the future.

      Next week: We will cover the various ways to record and archive your interview notes and source materials.


Written by bfranklinjournalism

March 23, 2011 at 3:27 am

Citizen Journalism 101: Creating content people want to read

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      Quality content is the difference between success and failure in an increasingly media-savvy world. This week, the New York Times announced its website would become a pay-only site, but the only way it can succeed is if:

1)     it provides content that can only be found on its website;

2)     it provides content that is of better quality that can be found elsewhere for free; and

3)     it provides value to its readers/listeners/viewers that is far greater than the price they will pay for access to the website.

      Obviously, the folks in charge at the Old Gray Lady have evaluated their product and determined it was worth the risk to put up The Iron Curtain — the pay wall. They’re not alone in this assessment, either. Many newspapers have gone forward with various forms of pay-for-play content.

      Regardless of the type of pay wall in place, however, the key factor for success is content.

      Major daily newspapers all across the United States are losing readership at an alarming rate, but that’s not necessarily the story for all newspapers. Some are actually growing their readership faster than the big dailies are losing.

      Why? In a word, content. Or better stated, local content with impact.

      You can’t develop good editorial content for your media outlet without knowing how to “commit journalism.” We briefly scratched the surface on this topic a few weeks ago, but now we’re going to go into far more detail.

Step One: Your Topic

      Every form of writing, whether you’re writing a single, basic sentence, or a lengthy book, boils down to identifying a topic and writing about it. In journalism, the topic needs to have a laser-sharp focus.

      So, you start with a rather general topic, such as population loss in the rural Midwest. As you refine the topic, you narrow it down to population loss in your area, and, ultimately, population loss in your county or community.

      As you continue to focus the topic even further, perhaps you decide to focus on what the impacts on population loss are to city and/or county government, local schools, and businesses. Or, perhaps you look at what your community is doing to counteract population loss.

      What you’ve done, perhaps without realizing it, is to focus your topic by using the journalist’s most important question: “What does it mean to me (the reader)?

      This is the question every journalist should be asking long before he or she writes every story. If you can’t answer this question with your article, you have failed to commit journalism in every regard.

Step Two: Report before you report

      Reporting isn’t merely conveying the story. Anyone can spread “news” by simply turning to the person next to him or her and repeating what he or she just heard or saw. Reporting is researching your topic from every possible angle.

      I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a reporter tell me he or she got confused while writing about his or her story because he or she didn’t understand a key piece of subject matter. Especially now, in the Information Age, how could you possibly not understand something?

      And, if you don’t understand it, how can you possibly hope that your audience will understand?

      So, you must research the topic first to understand it better. And, it’s imperative that you do this step before you interview your sources. That way, if they provide information that is potentially incorrect, or contradicts your understanding of the subject matter, you can delve deeper.

      There are many different sources of information that can be useful for various reports, particularly on the Internet. We’ll delve into that topic next week.

Step Three: Interview your sources

      Getting a firm understanding of the basics of your general topic is important, but to truly report with impact, you need to have multiple quoted sources. The more local and informative these sources are, the better the overall article will be.

      So, be sure to seek out professionals in your local area who understand the topic you’re writing about. They will know what they’re talking about — or at least they should know what they’re talking about — and they should be reasonably familiar to your audience, as well.

      A good interview should never take more than 15-20 minutes. You’re not asking about the secrets of the universe — your source is knowledgeable — and your topic is focused to a laser-sharp focus. So, keep the questions simple and focused, and the interview will be quick and simple.

      Always record your interviews by writing notes, and with an electronic form of recording. There are several different ways to do that, and we’ll delve into that topic in a couple of weeks.

      And, as you conduct your interview, always remember to ask questions that start with the “Five W’s and H”: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. By asking questions this way you avoid asking questions that are “Yes or No” in nature, and you’re more likely to keep the interview itself focused on your topic.

Step Four: Crafting your masterpiece

      Some journalists can set their information and interviews aside and write them at a later date.

      But, for most, setting to writing immediately is the better course. Write from your memories of the interview first, and then refer to your notes, both from the interview and from the pre-interview reporting you have already conducted.

      Once your first draft is written, arrange it in a manner that is easier for the reader to understand. If you’re writing a feature story about a person or place, you might opt for prose — the kind of writing you find in a novel.

      But, for hard news stories, you will want to write your article in another format that is more focused and succinct. There are many different formats that can be useful in journalism — and we’ll delve into that topic in a few weeks’ time — but for most articles, the long-form “inverted pyramid” is preferred.

      In the inverted pyramid format, the most important information is conveyed first, followed by varying degrees of information of lesser importance. This method of reporting was first developed during the Civil War, and has been used by American media ever since.

      As the old saying goes, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

You have to follow the link to see this video: click here.

Step Five: Tidying up

      The final step of every writing process is the editing process. Even the most prolific and famous of fiction writers submit their writing for editing. The same is true for journalists, and it should also be true for those who are maintaining their own media outlets.

      Thankfully, today’s technology makes it easier than ever to write with proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar. But, it’s not foolproof. To avoid embarrassing errors, and to ensure you’ve written an article that leaves no unanswered questions, you need to have a second set of eyes checking over your work.

      If you’re working for an established news outlet, the editing process is already established. But, if you’re attempting to “do-it-yourself,” you should find someone you trust who is also somewhat knowledgeable about English grammar.

      Have a thick skin. Sometimes, the editor sees faults in our writing and/or reporting we don’t necessarily like to have exposed. Just remember that it’s better to have it pointed out by the editor before it’s published than by a few hundred members of your audience afterward.

Written by bfranklinjournalism

March 16, 2011 at 10:00 am