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How does WCPO decide what news stories to cover?

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Posted at 5:00 AM, Jan 25, 2021

I receive a lot of questions about how we decide what news stories we cover.

Questions and assumptions.

The reality is how we pick stories to cover is complicated.

That’s why as part of National News Literacy Week, our newsroom is focusing on sharing with you how we decide what stories we cover.

First, let me walk you through some of the ways stories originate and then I will address some common misconceptions about where our news stories come from.

Story ideas come from a variety of places.

Here are a few of those places:

  • All of our reporters have areas of expertise and news sources in our community. They regularly check in with these news sources to try to find out what is happening out there. For example, Josh Bazan covers education and checking in with sources allowed him to find this story.
  • We receive dozens of news releases from local and national organizations every day. Our journalists evaluate each news release we receive for potential newsworthiness.
  • We listen to police scanners and follow local individuals and organizations on social media to understand what is happening out there.
  • We follow other media organizations. Sometimes a newspaper in another town will have a news story on a topic we should look into here.
  • We connect the dots. The stories I tend to like the most are the ones where we spot a trend from several different news stories or pieces of information.
  • We file public records requests. We file lots of these. Sometimes we even have to take legal action to access government documents that the public is entitled to so that we can look out for you.
  • We live here. You would be surprised at how many news stories come about because one of our journalists drove past something interesting. Or how many stories began because a neighbor or a parent on a youth sports sideline mentioned something.

Once our journalists have a story idea, that idea goes through a vetting and approval process. No one on our team can just choose to do any old story without first discussing that topic with a manager.

Even as the newsroom leader, I always bounce ideas off other managers before I proceed with writing a column.

So what are we looking for in a story?

Impact: Most importantly, we are looking for stories that have an impact on our community. Does this affect people’s jobs? Their pocketbook? The more people a story impacts, the more likely we are to tell that story.

Interest: We look for stories that a broad group of people will care about. Many times I will receive phone calls or emails from people with a legitimate complaint about something. But the problem is their issue really only affects that one person -- or a small number of people. That usually won’t make a good news story. But sometimes what one person faces is so interesting that others can relate to the situation or might want to learn more about that situation.

Watchdog: We take our watchdog role seriously. So government or business malfeasance is important for us to cover.

Key topic: We have key topics that we follow closely. We believe these topics are important to you. Some of those topics are: the economic recovery after the pandemic, local businesses and restaurants, consumer issues, positive news and growth and development. We chose those topics based on conversations with many people in our community and other research.

If a manager and reporter agree a story has at least two of the above elements, we proceed with that story.

That should give you a little bit of an idea of where our stories come from.

Now, I will address assumptions I get from our audience when it comes to story selection.

Journalists shouldn’t pick and choose what to cover: I wish this were true, and we could cover everything that happens out there in the Cincinnati area. The reality is we only have so many reporters and photographers -- and you, the audience, only have so much interest and time for the news. Everyday, there are hundreds of potential stories we could cover. We can maybe tell 15-20 of them on a good day. To me, at its heart, journalism is about making choices to accurately report on the community.

ABC or your corporate owners tell you what to report: This couldn’t be further from the truth. ABC controls what goes into the national ABC news programs. But no one from ABC tells us what to do with our local newscasts. Similarly, our company, E.W. Scripps, is located right here in downtown Cincinnati. But unlike other stations in town, our corporate team doesn’t mandate we run certain stories or control how we put together local newscasts. The decisions about what stories we tell are made at 1720 Gilbert Avenue -- or at least they were before COVID forced many of our staff members to work remotely.

You get paid to tell certain stories/Your advertisers control what stories you tell: It is important to note that there is a distinct line between our sales team and our news team. The sales staff isn’t even on the same floor as our news team. Our journalists are not in any way influenced by advertising. I’ve been a part of stories that have cost my news organization thousands of dollars in advertising revenue. And I’ve never once been told not to do a story because it might hurt an advertiser. Our journalists also never get paid to tell a story.

You only tell stories that benefit your friends: We avoid conflicts of interest. We also work to tell stories about a variety of topics and parts of our community. We put a lot of effort into finding different and diverse news sources.

I think that’s a good summary of some of the common assumptions.

I hope this explains more about our story selection. If you would like to sit in on one of our news conversations, please email me at mike.canan@wcpo.com.

This was written by Mike Canan, who was the Senior Director of Local Media Content at WCPO through 2021. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram at @Mike_Canan.

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