Amid uncertainty, be prepared for the next big story

We’ve reached the time of year when most of the news in our communities is dominated by returns — students return to the classroom, athletes return to the field and the court, and the lazy days of summer become a memory in the rear view mirror as we prepare for the return of fall. 
This year, of course, is a little different. Who is to say how long in-person learning will continue at our schools, or how many games will be played under the Friday night lights before COVID safety precautions cause a pull-back?
We can hope the answer is that our students and athletes will see a full semester of school and a full season of sports, but will they? 
And, if they don’t, are you prepared? Is your staff prepared? 
We in the newspaper business have learned over the years to change direction on a dime. As news breaks, we respond. 
As we saw in the spring, our communities depend upon us for accurate, speedy information as situations change. 
With elections on the horizon, COVID showing no signs of letting up in many of our communities, and the ever-looming possibility that fall sports may be canceled, I wanted to share with you a few tips to keep your newsroom ready for the next big story: 
Know who to call before a story breaks. Whether it is an education story or a public safety story, make sure even your newest reporters have access to a list of major contacts often used in your newsroom. If you don’t have one, use GoogleSheets and compile one. 
Numbers are important. Whether it is a COVID story, a school enrollment story, or a tax story, getting the numbers correct and placing them in context is important for your readers. Big COVID spike? How have the infection rates increased by week? Big change in school taxes? How much did they increase year over year? 
Don’t just be there just for big news. If you are only reaching out to your school superintendent, city manager or police chief for big, breaking stories, that doesn’t help build a relationship long term. Make sure you are checking in with your local leaders regularly, and reporting more routine news from their agencies to help keep your readers informed. This will help when you need these folks for a big story or one that is more sensitive. 
Get the facts straight. A great example of this is the July runoff election we just went through. During the runoff, I noticed some newspapers didn’t say in their stories whether or not both parties had runoffs in their counties. And I noticed one newspaper that posted incorrect dates that polls were open. These are simple mistakes, but they could accidentally prevent someone from voting! Check this information with the Secretary of State and your local elections office. Many readers still turn to newspapers for accurate election information. Any story that involves dates or times is one you should check twice for accuracy. 
Let your readers know more is coming. Due to print deadlines, many of our papers have a key government meeting happening the night we go to press. If you aren’t covering that meeting in this week’s paper (remember—your readers may not understand your print deadlines!) make sure to point readers online or to next week’s edition for that story from within that edition. This way readers know you didn’t ignore the news, when they can expect to read about it, and where (online or in print). 
Even in uncertain times, there are steps you can take to ensure your newsroom is ready to face any breaking story, or any change that may come.