Thursday, December 2, 2021
Dec. 2, 2021

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From the Newsroom: Planning is key for Sunday A1 stories

By , Columbian Editor

I am the kind of person who makes lists. I can do three things at approximately the same time, and probably remember two more, but give me a sixth thing and the results are not going to be very good. I need a list!

One of the lists I kept for the 15 years I was The Columbian’s metro editor concerns our Sunday A1 stories. We still keep it today.

We like to plan our Sunday A1 stories anywhere from six to 10 weeks out. These stories should reflect our staff’s best work. They need to be local, and of broad community interest. They should shed fresh light on an issue, and oftentimes should bear the fruit of some investigative reporting. They are a chance to reward our customers for supporting our journalism by telling them a story they aren’t going to get anywhere else.

Our reporters and photographers are very busy, and news breaks all the time, so it is tempting to put aside these bigger projects in favor of daily work. Making a list helps us achieve our goals.

How do we decide what goes on the list? We try to get all of our metro and business reporters onto the Sunday cover once every quarter. We have 13 of them, and if you to the math, 13×4=52, that gives us just the number of stories we need. Because reporters are assigned to different beats, that also helps us ensure we have a good variety of stories.

Some of the stories are based on the calendar. The last Sunday of the year, for example, is reserved for our Top Stories of the Year package, and the Sunday before the Legislature convenes traditionally contains a story about what Southwest Washington expects from Olympia. The first Sunday in June is traditionally reserved for our high school graduation package, and so forth.

Exact stories and angles are suggested by the reporters, by the editors, or even better, by the readers.

Once a story idea makes the list, we bring it to a weekly meeting where the reporter talks about the plan with the other team members. This includes the story editor, the page designer, the photographer and the photo editor. News Editor Merridee Hanson leads these meetings, which are typically held at 3 p.m. Wednesdays. At the end of the meeting, we not only have a pretty good idea of what the story is about, but also about what images will accompany it, what graphic elements are needed, if the story will get special online treatment, and what the deadlines will be.

We always try to get what we call “leadable art,” which means that the story and its illustration can be the dominant image on the page. Our visuals experts are very good at coming up with ideas if we give them enough notice, even when a good photo opportunity is not apparent. Check Sunday’s paper for this year’s solution to the legislative preview story.

Of course, because we are working in advance, sometimes a story will fall through, or have to be delayed. Perhaps a key source is unavailable, or it will take longer than we thought to get some public records. And, of course, there is always the possibility that some other big story, what we call spot news, will cause us to pull our package.

Overall the system works pretty well for us, though there are some disadvantages. Because we plan so far in advance, we don’t often use Sunday A1 to react to news of the previous week.

But I think the advantage of making a Sunday A1 list works well for us, and for our readers.