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Be Enterprising

other topics under JUDGMENT: Avoiding Bias, Dealing with Profanities, Polls, Surveys & Studies, Public Meetings

Enterprise reporting is a term that has become unfamiliar to far too many radio journalists. Enterprise reporting refers to stories generated by a reporter on his or her own, as opposed both to stories assigned by the news director and to breaking news (such as police and fire department activity).

What neighbors are talking about

Investigative journalism (of, say, the Watergate or Whitewater variety) is one type of enterprise reporting, and important political stories have been generated by reporters rather than news directors. Most enterprise reporting, however, is rarely that glamorous and involves bringing stories active within a small subset of the community out to a wider audience.

For example, residents of a working-class neighborhood complain that an unoccupied house is the site of illegal drug sales and prostitution, and those neighbors want the house torn down. The owner, who lives in another part of the city, is an architect who says the building has historic value and that she eventually intends to restore the house. The neighbors blame the owner for leaving the property in disrepair, which they say invites criminals. The owner blames the neighbors for allowing criminal activity in their neighborhood, activity that she says hinders her plans to restore the building.

This story does not belong at the top of a newscast, but it brings up a variety of important issues: public safety, preserving historic buildings, absentee owners, and disputes among differing groups about urban planning and city priorities. It may well be the most talked about story in the neighborhood at that time, and because the issues it raises reverberate in neighborhoods throughout the listening area, it is worth reporting on the air. But the story hasn't made the daily newspaper, nor has it appeared on television. How does the enterprise reporter find out about it?

Paying attention

Here's where young reporters have to learn to pay attention to what concerns ordinary listeners. When you're in line at the bank, the post office, the grocery store, you may hear about all sorts of events going on in various neighborhoods. Some of these stories may deserve a wider audience. Barbers and hairdressers often have a wealth of information gleaned from their clientele. When you're getting your hair cut, think about whether that information might be of interest to your radio audience. Organization mailings and community newspapers often provide valuable leads to stories you might otherwise miss.

Cyberspace can also provide you with story ideas from farther away. E-mail lists and online forums contain postings that reveal the concerns of ordinary individuals. Sign up for a few of the lists or forums that cover your hobbies or interests (but be judicious; your e-mail box might get overloaded with junk). Although most of the postings will not generate stories, some will.

For example, on an e-mail list dealing with religion, a parent in Texas posted a message about a new book in the high-school library that the parent found inappropriate for his 14-year-old daughter. The novel was written for early teen readers and had been recommended by the school librarian. In learning about the novel from his daughter, the parent was offended by one particular scene in the book, and he sent an e-mail message to the list for advice on what to do. After reading this e-mail message, the enterprise reporter will want to investigate whether the book has generated any controversy at schools in the station's listening area.

Don't forget your own curiosity as you go about your daily life. I remember a former news director of mine a dozen or so years ago was furious with himself one day. On this particular day, the front page of the feature section of the daily newspaper had a large story about the sudden popularity of car air-fresheners shaped like little crowns. Not a major story, to be sure, but the news director said, "I must have seen these crowns inside a dozen or so cars, and I always wondered what they were. But I forgot that others might also be wondering, which made it a story worth investigating." Now that the newspaper had explained the mystery of the crowns, there was no longer a story to report.

Gaining respect as a news source

This episode gets to an important aspect of enterprise stories: they distinguish your version of the news from that available on other radio stations, on television or in the newspaper. By reporting the stories no one else has...or has give your station added stature as a primary source for information. Listeners will perceive when TV stations and the newspaper are following your lead. (They also know when you are following them.)

Enterprise stories require a little more time than stories whose basic facts are already known to listeners. While it may be difficult to fit a wrap from such a story under 45 seconds, having an enterprise story should never be a license to go long (that is, more than 55 seconds). Condensing the story to its basic elements also forces the reporter to gauge how important the story really is and how interesting the station's listeners will find it.

You won't get any additional pay for enterprise stories -- after all, most of the discovery will have to be done on your own time -- but you will gain a satisfaction far greater than that from reporting assigned stories. You will also be developing news judgment and journalist's instincts, which will serve you well in your career ahead.

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