Off the Record: What makes news newsworthy?

I got an e-mail this weekend from someone who signed the message simply as “K.”

“I am wondering what the best way is to encourage the Journal to consider publishing news,” the message started.

Well, one suggestion would be to sign your whole name rather than hiding behind an initial. Anonymous letters and messages rarely get much consideration around here. They are usually crumpled up and tossed in the round file. Crumpling a letter, by the way, is a very satisfying way of dealing with anonymous messages. Hitting the delete button on an email just doesn’t carry the same emotional satisfaction.

It is especially annoying when someone leaves a voice mail with no name and no return number. They may have a complaint or a question that demands an explanation. Of course, with no return number it is impossible to call and offer an explanation, even when you have the answer they want.

The real issue K. had was that he or she didn’t consider a recent story we ran to be news. It was the story of the New Ulm Area Catholic Schools ending its association with the danceline coach because of her living arrangement. K. said lots of employers terminate employees for not meeting the company’s or organization’s standards and we don’t see stories about that in the paper. Well, most people aren’t fired for living with someone else without benefit of marriage in this day and age. Some people might consider that an injustice. Personally, I see the point of NUACS wanting to maintain the standards of the Church among its teachers and staff, but I do wonder why it took five years to do something about it.

Anyway, this gives me a chance to talk about what makes a news story newsworthy. It is a judgment call that I have been making for over 40 years, and after a while an editor may not think about it much. It’s like a baseball player at the plate. When the pitch comes in he doesn’t spend a lot of time analyzing it. If it looks hittable, he swings. If he stops to think about it too much, it’s too late.

So here goes. First, a news story needs to be interesting, not just to one or two people, but to lots of people, the more the better. The story about the raccoon climbing the UBS Tower in St. Paul this week was interesting to people around the world, so much so that it became the top-tweeted topic on Twitter. (Try saying that five times fast).

Some news stories lack the interest of a raccoon climbing a skyscraper, but it has importance for a lot of people. Local tax hearings and government budget issues may be boring to some people, but they will discover how important they are when they open their tax bills.

So, stories need to be of community interest and importance. They also need to be timely.

In this day of the 24-hour news cycle, timeliness can be measured in hours or even minutes in some cases. It’s a challenge in a daily newspaper to find ways to present the news in a more timely fashion, which is why social media are becoming so much more important.

So the fact that a popular and successful coach was let go from her position at NUACS is newsworthy, in that it is of interest to a large segment of the community, including the students, families and staff at NUACS, not to mention parishioners in Catholic parishes who support the mission of the church. It is unusual for the circumstances that led to the termination, which most businesses and organizations would not think twice about.

Our reporting on the story has sparked a lot of online comment and a few letters to the editor from people for and against the the move. I would say that’s a fair indication of the newsworthiness of the story.

——

Kevin Sweeney has been the managing editor of The Journal since May 1985. A native of St. Paul, he worked at newspapers in LeSueur and Albert Lea before moving to New Ulm. Contact him at ksweeney@nujournal.com.

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