Years ago, when we first started as a reporter, we heard a call come over the scanner for the local Fire Department to go to the airport for an airplane in distress. Our editor sent us out there to document the situation.
As we stood on the tarmac, chatting with the firefighters, we saw a small prop plane sputter its way to a bumpy but, ultimately, safe landing. The firefighters were relieved and departed back to the station.
We chatted with the pilot and then went back to the newsroom, informing our editor of what happened. He said there was no story.
“Sometimes, the plane lands safely,” he said, which became our newsroom motto for when reporters went out for coverage but found nothing newsworthy — a police call that turned out to be uneventful or a city council meeting filled with housekeeping items, for example.
Years later, under a new editor, a rookie reporter new to the area suggested a piece on the “incompetence” of the U.S. Postal Service, a story idea born of his claim that he was not getting his forwarded mail. Everyone in the newsroom asked three friends from out of state to mail to the newsroom an envelope (it could be empty) and each reporter mailed out to three other people out of state the same. The newsroom would track how long it would take for each envelope to reach its destination, thereby proving the U.S. Mail’s incompetence.
All but one of the envelopes were delivered properly within two days. So our editor decided there was no story.
At that point, we realized that “sometimes the plane lands safely” is not justification for no story — the plane landing safely is the story.
So, now that we’re an editor, our newsroom philosophy is “the story is the story.”
Recently, that philosophy was put to the test. After a local elected official, who owns a business, told one of our colleagues that his business’ employees would not frequent a local bar because the bar is too dangerous, we took a look at the number of police calls to all the city’s bars and lounges. We expected to see that bar the elected official cited to be a hotbed of criminal activity — after all, we report on police activity and we shared that politician’s view given what we remember we’ve written.
Surprisingly, we found all our local bars and lounges were virtually crime free; including the one we all thought would be found to be a trouble spot. The local police confirmed this, stating that most of the calls to that establishment centered on noise, not violent activity.
We ran the story. It didn’t matter that the conclusion didn’t match what we thought we would find, or that a local elected official didn’t realize what was happening in his own city or what his Police Department was dealing with.
It’s not for journalists to decide if good news is newsworthy; it’s our job to document what’s actually occurring in our communities. Often times, what’s happening is good news — donations to nonprofit organizations, pinewood derbies, community clean-ups, etc.
And sometimes it’s that the local bars are safe; and that non-whites are not booked into jail at a higher rate than whites (we checked — they really aren’t, despite public perception).
The story is the story.