Getting Vital Community News Into the Media Is Not Easy; Here’s How You Might Do It

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by Hank DeZutter

Chicago is internationally famous as a “city of neighborhoods,” but its news media celebrate this identity more in theory than practice. Though Chicago has 76 coherent “community areas” and a few hundred identifiable “neighborhoods” within these areas, news and feature stories from and about these areas is usually treated as space filler or calendar fare.

Major downtown Chicago newspapers go through cycles of attempting to cover its neighborhoods better. They have done this by:

Reassigning general assignment reporters to covering certain neighborhood turf,
Creating zoned editions of the papers to permit–especially in the suburbs–better focused “community” stories for their readers, and
Setting up special sections or columns of the paper that specialize in community news.

These efforts come and go, however, and those pitching community stories must stay abreast of the media’s current approaches to covering communities and neighborhoods.

TV news departments often cover neighborhood or community stories by focusing on extraordinary achievements and efforts by “people you should know” or “Chicago’s very own.” Likewise, TV newscasts may feature remarkable achievements or “success stories” of community institutions–housing or school groups or community-based organizations. Any publicist who does not look for and maintain an arsenal of these stories–extraordinary individuals and programs with proven success credentials –should get out of the business. But even stories like these are rarely published by the major media.

Chicago’s neighborhoods and communities are ignored as key focal points for continuing media coverage. Though police departments, city and village halls, school boards, and other local governments are looked after–and local high school sports contests are diligently covered by “stringers” or local correspondents– neighborhood and community life is too mundane, too “every-day”, to be routinely monitored or covered by the major media.

Communities and neighborhoods usually burst on to the front pages only if major disasters–natural or manmade–occur there. Gas-line explosions, drive-by shootings, or violent storms or floods are what it takes to bring the media and camera crews to Chicago area’s neighborhoods and small municipalities. Disaster and conflict still all-too-often dictate the news. Who dies or fights in the neighborhood merits more attention than who lives there.

This institutional neglect of our neighborhoods by the media has more to do with prevailing news values which emphasize sensational conflicts and the bizarre than with a conspiracy to ignore our communities and their citizens. The sheer number of communities and neighborhoods also makes it uneconomical for downtown media–with their greatly reduced reporting staffs — to do more than occasionally call a few reliable community news sources. When it comes to Chicago’s hallowed neighborhoods, “no news is good news,” is still the prevailing sentiment.

What all this means, of course, is that people pitching community or neighborhood stories have formidable obstacles in their path in gaining the attention of major media. Yet it is possible to burst through the barricades and help make a community and its spokespersons newsworthy to major media. Here are some ways to accomplish this:

1. “Piggyback’ on the news of the day.
Be ready to issue comments about hot news events that bear some relationship to the community and the expertise of its organizations. If state or federal legislation is under debate, make community spokespersons and experts available to the media to talk about your own neighborhood’s experience with the issue at question and the worthiness of the legislation. Volunteer to discuss the ramifications of the bill on the “average citizen or neighborhood.”

Even a disaster story could provide an opportunity to discuss your community’s programs or approach to the problems. A bizarre mass killing by someone known to be “troubled” could provide an opportunity to talk about the importance of a local pro-active community mental health program and how it works to prevent trouble.

A community “court-watch” program could be highlighted as a solution to another community’s chronic problems with slumlords, parole violators, or other local crime threats that flare up in the news.

A community group that anticipates the news likely to grab the media’s attention and considers its own organization’s strengths and expertise in these matters will be better able to gain prominent play in the media.

A serious problem that surfaces in the news also is likely to become a topic for discussion on news talk-shows on local radio or TV shows. Producers of these shows need to quickly find “experts” to speak on these matters- -whether they be child-neglect, crime-prevention, drug treatment. or community planning. Alert community news sources and experts who know about and call these producers can often succeed in getting on these shows.

2. Pitch “feature” stories and talk-show discussions about how your community organization succeeds at solving or addressing a newsworthy major problem.
Like hit records, issues covered by the media come and go. News issues can go in and out of fashion with the times. One month, environmental concerns may dominate the coverage; the next month murder or “driveby” shootings can become a hot issue. The following month child or domestic abuse may burst on to the front pages. Community organizations intent on carving out a profile in the major media need to keep abreast of the issues that particularly affect them and their organization.

When the overdose death of celebrities recently made heroin a news issue , an organization that promotes and participates in a “needle- exchange program took advantage of this to become a major source in feature stories about local aspects of the issue.

When a grisly episode of child abuse or domestic abuse surfaces in the news, organizations successful at preventing or treating victims of the abuse should come forth with their stories about how the problem could have been prevented or approached.

When newspapers write about the problem of dissolving or disappearing community or family ties–contact the writers to show how your organization is attempting to deal with this worldwide phenomenon.

With creative thought and a continuing monitoring of the media, the “problems” that surface in and dominate the media can provide splendid opportunities for those working to solve or minimize these problems.

But community spokespeople must be creative and assertive. They cannot be shy. A spokesperson for a community crime-prevention coalition was disappointed to learn that a local TV news crew was reassigned from covering his group’s press conference on the need for community policing. He was told the camera crew would instead cover the trial of a mass murderer in Milwaukee. The community-

policing advocate complained about the futility of covering problems after they happen, and then argued that the mass murderer might have been fingered and caught if Milwaukee had community-policing; the station agreed to cover the news conference.

3. Make major use of community media.
Though it should be obvious, community groups must do a better job than they usually do with their own community media. These media are more numerous than widely believed.

Community media are more than the local community newspaper chain. They Include cable TV news outlets, even cable-access efforts, school-related newsletters, church bulletins, local bank and chamber of commerce newsletters. and even bulletin boards at local supermarkets and currency exchanges.

A community that informs itself is better equipped to inform the outside world. There is a media food chain; purely local media feed city media that feed regional, national and international media. Print tend to feed broadcast media–particularly if there is a sound or visual angle.

A local story that is well covered by a local medium is always more convincing than a simple news release in convincing outsiders of the worthiness of your story or organization.

4. Get to know and build relationships with individual reporters and editors who are interested in your issues.
“Generic” appeals for news coverage to” whom it may concern” or “City Editor” are less likely to result in coverage than letters or phone calls to reporters or editors who know and trust you and your organization as a news source.

You and your organization should get to know them by taking the time to carefully monitor the media and identify reporters and editors most likely to cover your organization, community, and issues. Once you identify these journalists, call them, introduce yourself, and show how you can help them. Start to develop a relationship. Allow them to use you as “sources”– for tips on stories that might not even feature your organization or for background on complex social, legal, technical or legislative matters.

Just as you guide journalists into the unfamiliar thickets of your community, they can help guide you through the mysterious ways of their businesses–introducing you to other reporters and sections of the newspaper that could benefit your organization.

5. Become an example for a newsworthy local or national trend.
Media thrive on trends. They often start trends and certainly cultivate them and keep them growing. Anyone seeking publicity for their community or community group should think of ways that their programs, members, or leader embody a newsworthy trend. Whether the trend is citizen crime-fighting patrols, a baby-sitting co-op, or community gardens–alert community group publicists can often bring attention to their efforts by timely trend spotting.

6. Start and maintain your own media.
In these days of inexpensive Internet connections and computer-desktop publishing, every community group can afford to start and maintain its own publications. A $20-a-month Internet connection and a computer-literate volunteer can easily put pages of information about your organization on the World Wide Web.

One-to-4-page double-sided newsletters are easy to publish on computers–and a great opportunity for local youngsters seeking to develop word-processing and desktop-publishing skills. Once published and duplicated, they can be circulated door to door or as inserts for other community publications–in schools, churches, or businesses.

Community spokespersons who publish their own media and have to find and craft their own stories are better publicists for these stories than those who merely think of their organization and community as “a good group doing good things.” Those who have to write stories become aware of the need for “stories” or “an angle” to present.

7. Let community experts and practitioners be spokespersons.
The best news sources truly know what they are talking about; they do not merely speak for the organization. Journalists like nothing better than using news sources who are not hired or trained spokespeople for their organizations, but are people in the trenches, doing what they are speaking about.

Practitioners need some basic training before speaking with the media–at finding and identifying stories, at writing and talking about their work without using jargon or overly formal proposal-type language, and at identifying the best journalists for their stories. We at the Community Media Workshop offer such training.

Getting journalists to cover neighborhoods and communities as we know and live in them is difficult. As long as the news media must entertain their readers as well as inform them–and present “stories” and not merely useful data and advice–it will be difficult to get useful coverage about living in, stabilizing, and improving our neighborhoods. But those doing the necessary work of creating, recreating and strengthening our neighborhoods need to gather and tell their “stories” to the media. One of the reasons America is having difficulties retaining and cultivating a “sense of community” is that the major news media have largely ignored the bewildering array of bottom-up community-development efforts. Those working to improve our neighborhoods and communities need media coverage–not just for their sake, but for America’s sake.

(A shorter version of this essay appeared in the 1997 Media Guide of the Publicity Club of Chicago.)

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