Editor's Views: Many judgments involved in every story Gazette pursues

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Scott Angus
Saturday, December 7, 2013

How much detail should a story have? How much time and effort should a reporter devote to a story? When is it time for a reporter to let go of a story and move on to the next one?

Gazette reporters and editors continually ask those questions. The answers aren’t always obvious. Some stories are complex and require many hours of sourcing and research. Some are simple and can be wrapped up with one phone call and 30 minutes of writing. Others fall in the middle.

A local official sent me a letter criticizing a recent story. I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say that this official didn’t think we had done enough research and provided enough context. To a degree, the official had a point: The reporter could have spent more time, dug deeper and provided more information.

The story might have been better, but it also would have been longer and more complex. The greater length could have intimidated readers, and more numbers would have made the story harder to read and understand.

In other words, it’s always a balancing act when we make those decisions, and it’s often a delicate act at that.

With relatively complicated stories, our reporters must dive deep enough in their research to understand the subjects. They then must pull back and explain the issues in relatively simple terms for people who want reading the newspaper to be a leisure activity, not a mind-numbing chore.

Most stories have many possible angles. Our local news editor, Sid Schwartz, likens a story to a tree with many branches. We can’t possibly go down every one. We have to pick what we believe are the most important and relevant branches. If we didn’t, every story would be dozens if not hundreds of inches long, and we’d only have room for a few of them in every paper.

We also have to consider our limited human resources. We only have so many people, and they only have so much time. Each of our reporters is always juggling many stories. If a reporter spends all of his or her time on one, the others won’t get done. That might be OK for the one story, but we have seven editions every week, and we need many stories to make each of them vibrant, informative and satisfying for our readers.

Occasionally, we decide to dive deep and spend extra time on a story or an issue. That type of journalism is critical to our mission of being a strong and meaningful local newspaper.

One current example is a two-day series we’re preparing to mark the fifth anniversary of General Motors pulling out of Janesville. We began planning in September, and a handful of staff members have been working on stories, photos, graphics and videos since.

The series will take a thorough look at what has happened to Janesville and the area’s economy in terms of jobs and wages since 2008, and it also will explore the status and future of the empty GM plant and the dozens of acres around it. The series will be published Sunday, Dec. 15, and Monday, Dec. 16.

We decided the subjects are worth the time and space and that most of our readers will find enough value in the series to justify our decision. Such work comes at a price, though. While staffers are devoting many hours to this project, they aren’t available to pursue other stories.

Those are tradeoffs and judgments we make every day. The result, we hope, is a balanced newspaper that provides the right mix of everyday news and in-depth journalism. We would never claim to always make the right choices, but we always make them with the right intentions.

Scott W. Angus is editor of The Gazette and vice president of news for Bliss Communications. His email is sangus@gazettextra.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @sangus_.

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