How to Write for Web Pages - Part 13 – The Curation of Story Ideas
Posted by Bill Anderton
Story ideas can be plentiful. However, the resources to develop story ideas into words, pictures and other media ready to place onto a web page are always in short supply. Webmasters never have enough editorial resources to develop everything they wish they could.
As a result, all editorial departments must have a process to select from the many possible story ideas those few that are worthy of using the limited developmental resources. The problem is a classical one of contention for valuable (and often scarce) resources and is similar to the contention for capital or other budget resources. Which set of story ideas will yield the best possible result for the websites’ missions, objections and strategies?
The homily, “getting the most bang for the buck” comes to mind.
The selection process is called curation and judges the relative merits of story ideas to determine if the idea is worthy of investing in the development of the idea into a finished story. One can’t develop everything, so which ideas, if developed, best fulfill our missions, objections and strategies?
Curation should be intentional, not accidental. Curation should be thoughtful, not based on whimsy. Curation is serious business and is worthy of some gravitas not just implementing the first story idea that come to mind or is the next on some list. The more limited a church’s editorial resources, the more thoughtful the curation process has to be.
Curation is not nearly as subjective as you might first think. While some subjective judgment does come into play, there are also plenty of objective criteria one can apply to the curation process.
In classical editorial organizations, the curator-in-chief is the assignments editor.
An assignment editor is the person who selects, develops and plans writing-reporting assignments for either news events or feature stories to be covered and published in a website. The position and role of an assignment editor come from newspapers, radio stations and television stations. Websites also use these roles as analogs for positions that perform these same duties and functions.
In many very small websites, webmasters often assume the role of the assignment editor and integrate these responsibilities into their duties. Even in larger websites, assignments editor functions might be combined with the functions and tasks of another editor. In the largest websites, the assignments editor might be a dedicated role or even a small group of staff people.
For all non-beat stories, when the assignment editor decides to develop a story idea, the assignment editor then selects the particular writer-reporter for the story. The basis for assigning a specific story to a particular writer-reporter is typically based on having specific skills and experience. Therefore, it is up to the assignment editor to assess the skills of all of the writers-reporters on staff, as well as those who are freelancing or stringing for the website.
An assignment editor typically has experience working on the website as another editor or as a writer-reporter. The role of the assignment editor is best suited to someone with sound judgment and considerable local knowledge of the church and its community. The assignments editor position is considered a senior staff position on the web team reporting to the editor-in-chief or the webmaster.
At many smaller websites, the duties of the assignment editor are often combined with other editor positions, even the webmaster job.
Assignment editors perform inter-related functions:
The role of assignments editor is sometimes called the “assignment desk” when the tasks are shared by multiple staff members working closely in concert with each other.
Part of the job of the assignment desk or a solo assignment editor is to field calls, e-mail and other contacts from the public who are offering story ideas, news and information about covered events. These contacts will alert the assignment desk about:
The role of an assignment desk is to sift through all of the incoming contacts/reports to determine which items are worthy of editorial space in the website and the application of the necessary editorial assets to develop selected items into coverage.
The assignments desk also is the primary first contact with all of the beat reports. Beat reporters convey news and information about what is happening on their individual beats to the assignments desk. In turn, the assignment desk looks for linkage and synergy among different beats and other potential stories in the ideation and development stages.
If a major story occurs, such as a disaster or a “big deal” event, an assignment editor might call upon multiple writers-reporters to cover various aspects of a breaking story and coordinate coverage.
In addition to incoming news and information, the assignments desk is also steward and custodian of the various lists of story ideas compiled in the story ideation processes by the editorial staff in the brainstorming phases.
Not all story ideas will be worthy of publishing. Some will be good ideas, but other won’t.
The curation process makes both objective and subjective judgments about story ideas.
The curation process of story ideas is the intentional act that:
Final responsibility for the curation of story ideas is typically an assignments editor, perhaps in consultation with the webmaster. When a web team has a dedicated assignments editor working for the webmaster, there is always a close collaboration between the two. In small websites, curation might be done entirely by the webmaster fulfilling the role of the assignment editor. In large websites, the assignment editor is sometimes assisted by a team working in collaboration.
To insiders, the things that happen in the normal life and ministry of our churches and ministries may seem routine. It is hard for some to recognize the newsworthiness of the things that happen right in front of them.
It is a can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees thing.
However, there are creative ways to think about the activities happening close to you and how they might fit the newsworthiness criteria.
The curation of a story idea begins with the assessment of the newsworthiness of the idea.
In earlier installments of this tutorial I have used the terms newsworthy and newsworthiness many times. These are not abstract concepts to journalists.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines newsworthy as:
“Interesting enough to the general public to warrant reporting.”
However, to a journalist, the term is even more concrete. Journalistic training teaches that newsworthiness is defined by certain criteria:
Can you connect a church event, your work, a mission project, sermons, etc. to:
Stories can be significant if they:
People inherently care about what is close to home, literally or figuratively.
Whenever you have an opportunity to contribute to the public debate, do so. Be thoughtful about how you do it.
The traditional newsworthiness criteria of journalists apply to church websites too. A story that is newsworthy for a local newspaper or magazine is newsworthy for a church website too.
However, the newsworthiness criteria for a church website have another aspect in its application.
Remember in Part 3 of this tutorial when I wrote about the dual nature of the content written for church websites? The inside-the-church-and-outside-the-church duality of your content means that you are judging newsworthiness through both lenses: newsworthiness for inside your church and newsworthiness for outside your church and community.
You still ask, “Is this story newsworthy?” and use the same criteria to judge the answer. However, you ask the question two ways, (1) “Is this story newsworthy inside the church?” and (2) “Is this story newsworthy outside the church?”
It is important that the skill for judging newsworthiness is inculcated throughout the entire staff, both editorial and writers-reporters. Newsworthiness is a common thread that all must understand.
In almost all websites with volunteer staff, you will have to teach newsworthiness as a practice. For this reason, I have prepared an exercise that might be helpful.
Ask the staff to study my discussion on newsworthiness and to meet for a tutorial. Gather the staff in a meeting room with a whiteboard or a paper flip chart.
Ask the staff, “What stories are important in your church life?” and write their answers on the board.
Try to get at least ten story ideas on the list.
Then ask everybody to rank the newsworthiness of each idea. As a result, you have a ranked list of story ideas identified as the most newsworthy stories and the least.
Now ask the staff to reflect on the rankings and identify criteria that they used to rank the story ideas. Use the two opposite poles of the list as examples. What factors did the stories at the top of the list have that the ones on the bottom don’t?
Ask the staff if they think there are any differences between information and news? What is it about news that makes it different from mere information? Discuss as many differences as the editorial staff can. Develop the resulting criteria on the board. Now, go back the list of story ideas and make a note of which stories are news and which are information.
Now contrast the staff developed news and information criteria against the standard six values that journalists use for newsworthiness:
After a discussion of the criteria of journalistic newsworthiness, revisit your list of story ideas. Ask the editorial staff to reconsider the labeling of each story as news or information. Were any changes needed? Also, reconsider the ranking of the idea. Discuss all of the changes and why needed.
Now, ask the editorial staff to reflect on all of the ideas labeled as information. Can any of the informational stories be made more newsworthy by changing the approach or slant on the story?
You might have to repeat this exercise multiple times throughout the year, each with a different approach but aimed at teaching the concept of newsworthiness.
By the way, the results of each exercise (the ideas place on the whiteboard) are very like good story ideas worthy of development.
Curation of a story is more complex that merely determining its newsworthiness. Newsworthiness is a critical filter in the curation process, but other criteria and judgments must also be applied to curate a story idea entirely and make it ready for content development.
In this tutorial, I have often described good content as being intentional. Good content is should be deliberately and purposefully developed.
The complete curation process is a direct result of intentionality.
The remainder of the curation processes after passing the newsworthiness is both creative and subjective. You will make subjective judgment calls that are okay and natural parts of the curation process.
Not all ideas, even newsworthy ideas, will make good stories.
As simple as it sounds, deciding what story can be told based on your idea is a good second step after determining its newsworthiness. The story idea is the seed of the development process. Identifying the story that you want to tell is the next phase of the storytelling process.
All good stories have some common traits about what makes a good story and how one gets crafted.
Identifying what is newsworthy depends to some extent on the audience you are targeting in the website; either as a whole or in particular portions of your overall audience.
We have previously identified two audiences: (1) those inside your church; and (2) those outside your church. However, audience targeting doesn’t stop there. Age can play a significant role too. The stories that are newsworthy for a senior citizen might not be for a high-schooler. Residency can also play a role. Newsworthiness for an intercity urban dweller can be different for the rural resident.
Keep your various audiences in mind when you pick a story idea to develop. Consider things that will have an interest to each targeted audience. Think about the angle of the story that will make your audience relate to the story and keep them interested. Keeping audiences interested is always challenging. Your story should be told in a way that it is relevant today and in the future.
Audience targeting might influence acceptance of the story idea for development or its rejection. Audience targeting might be absolute, or it might be a case of slant for various audiences. Sometimes, the same story idea can be tailor for several audience, so one story becomes several, each with its target audience.
The potential placement of the story is an important part of the curation process. Certain sections of the website may need new content, and that requirement will drive potential assignments. Other stories might be significant enough where the placement of the story is determined solely by the story.
Story ideas with high importance or great potential interest should be positioned above-the-fold on its web page, so you expose the headline and the lead without having to scroll down the page. High-value stories can also be centerpieces of a series of related stories or an entire section of the website.
How and where to play stories are usually direct functions of how newsworthy the developed stories will be. Teach your editorial staff always to be on the lookout for these special stories.
The following definitions are examples of two key terms in story placement.
Both types of stories should have strong headlines. The headline should accurately reflect the content of the story. It should also capture the interest of readers and compel them to want to read more.
Both types of stories can be used to target particular audiences among your readership of your website.
In most websites significant enough to have multiple people working or volunteering on their editorial staff, story ideas are often discussed in a group meeting setting as part of the curation process. Group discussion of story ideas allows multiple points of view.
Ideas and their curation are openly discussed among the team and usually improved, as a result.
Editorial discussion of story ideas can happen anywhere in the curation process. Some websites do it early in the process, even discussing newsworthiness. Other websites do it near the end of the curation process as a last checks-and-balance of story ideas before assignment for the development of the story.
At the end of the curation process, certain story ideas will be selected for development. Typically, stories ideas selected for development are the best story ideas coming out of the curation process.
It is common that the brainstorming and curation process will yield more story ideas than websites have development resources to produce. Few websites can produce everything. For this reason, some selection process decides which ideas should consume the websites’ limited development resources.
The webmaster or the assignment editor or both working together collaboratively, select which story ideas to develop.
Selection usually involves some degree of subjective judgment, educated and insightful judgment, but judgment none the less.
Story ideas not selected stay in a selection queue. Just because the selection doesn’t happen today doesn’t mean that a story won’t appropriate and for this reason selected tomorrow.
Once you select a story idea for development, an assignment editor should develop an “assignment package” to pass along to the writer-reporter chosen to develop the story.
An assignment package might be a written memorandum of one or more pages that detail the assignment editor’s expectations of the writer-reporter developing a story.
With an experienced editorial team blessed with experienced writers-reporters, assignment packages might be very brief; a couple of paragraphs in an e-mail might be enough.
For inexperienced writers-reporters, assignment packages will typically be more complete. The purpose of a complete assignment packages is to get writers-reporters off to a good start and be helpful developing the story that the editors are wanting.
Conscientious assignment editors will provide all of the known “givens” about their assignments.
A more fulsome assignment package might contain all or some of the following:
Completed assignment packages might be circulated among the editorial staff for comment before assigned to a writer-reporter. Circulation of the assignment package is an especially good idea if you have an inexperienced just-leaning-the-ropes editorial staff. The mere act of making and reviewing assignment packages commit the entire story ideation process to paper. One can learn a lot just by reading and assignment package. The hands-on development of assignment packages is learning exercises.
As both the editorial staff and writer-report staff become experienced and more mature, assignment packages tend to take on a more shorthand form, but I still think they are useful for both groups. The act of documenting the story idea causes everybody to have to think about the story idea in depth.
With the finished assignment package, the assignment editor will be ready to assign a writer-reporter to the task of developing the story idea into a finished piece of copy for publication.
An assignment editor should get to know the capabilities of each writer-reporting working on the church website. Make an assessment of their skills and abilities so you can assign the story ideas that play to the strengths of each.
However, don’t be afraid to make assignments that challenge your writer-reporters to grow. Remember, writing and reporting is a learn-by-doing situation. Be prepared to mentor and tutor your rookie writers-reporters, so they develop their skills. You will likely find that if you create an environment for learning and growth, you will find it much easier to recruit new volunteers to do content development.
In this section of the tutorial, I will be assuming that the assignment editor has the blessing of multiple writers-reporters from which to select for each assignment. Some church websites do, but I certainly acknowledge that others don’t.
Assignment editors have to work with the resources that are available to develop content. If you only have one writer-reporter, this section of the tutorial may be moot. However, even in situations with only one writer-reporter, the qualities mentioned in this section are admirable qualities for the available writer-reporter to have. If not, the qualities mentioned here can serve as a roadmap for skills development for the writer-reporter.
The complete curation process is nearing completion, and only one significant task remains: supporting the writer-reporter while on assignment.
Assignment editors should help writers-reporters while they are developing the story idea into a finished piece of copy. Questions may arise, or a writer-reporter may seek an opinion about how to write something. They may need help with any number of issues.
The assignment editor should be available to provide help and support whenever needed. Also, assignment editors should be available for any scheduled editorial conferences or ad-hoc meetings requested by writers-reporters.
The assignment editor should maintain on-going contact with writers-reporters while they are on assignment and have a general idea of how story development is progressing, particularly as deadlines approach. Assignment editors shouldn’t micro-manage writers-reporters, only keep a general awareness of the situation.
As a senior editorial position on the web team, assignment editors are frequently called upon to help writers-reporters with skills development in the form of on-the-job training. Assignment editors should help writers-reporters become better at their assignments. Writing and reporting have strong learn-by-doing components in the development of real skills. Great assignment editors mentor newbie writers-reporters while they are learning.
When the writer-reporter finishes the assignment and submits the completed story and all of its support files, the assignment editor’s tasks are almost completed.
The assignment editor will receive the submitted files and immediately back them up using the procedures and methods established by the webmaster.
The assignment editor will check the story to make sure it is complete and fulfills the assignment. If the assignment is incomplete or questions arise, the assignment editor will contact the writer-reporter for clarification.
The assignment editor will then send copies of the completed assignment to the web editors to begin the editorial process that edits the story and prepares it for publication.
With the ideation, curation, assignment and story development completed, the assignment editor’s tasks for this story are completed.
Much of what is written above refers to the curation of larger, more-important feature stories. Rightly so, these are important stories, consume significant development resources and obviously worthy of critical attention.
However, some of the ideas selected for development will be smaller stories; smaller in scope and word count. Not everything will be important feature stories.
You may only need a paragraph or two about a limited-scope story to add to your home page or a sidebar. Or, perhaps just 50 words for a calendar details page. You may need Facebook post and tweets written.
Too often, webmasters feel that small stories are “not worth the candle” of curation. Such attitudes are unfortunate.
While small, these are none the less important stories to the success of websites. In their totality, they serve as the glue that knit websites together and provide coherence.
Small stories are worthy of curation too. The curation process of small stories might be more streamlined and quicker to execute, but the overall concept remains the same. The process is still intentional and directed.
The curation process for a small story still requires a worthy idea, someone to write the story and an assignment to get the ball rolling.
Don’t let the curation process for small stories become more burdensome than the development of the stories, but keep the important things intact in the streamlined curation of small stories.
Properly curated small stories benefit by better fitting into the general coverage of the website, are much easier to edit and add synergy to the whole of the website.
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