Call It Expertise, a Franchise Area, or a Beat—the Virtues of Knowing a Lot About Something

By Jack Limpert

Butch Ward at Poynter has a good end-of-the-year post titled “Need a newsroom resolution for 2016? How about reclaiming some expertise?” He writes about the need for newspapers, in a time of shrinking staffs, to stop doing so many routine stories and to focus on fewer subject areas but cover them more deeply.

He says, “Newsrooms that are making those choices refer to them with different words. Some call them ‘franchise topics.’ You can call them ‘areas of focus,’ stories you ‘own,’ or ‘coverage you are known for.’

“They become the newsroom’s first priority. And because they represent the newsroom’s commitment to cover fewer topics, but cover them deeply, they allow the staff to produce coverage that embraces an issue’s complexity and engages the community in a far more meaningful conversation.”

At the Washingtonian, a monthly magazine, one way I evaluated a prospective writer was did he or she know a lot about something. When a writer knows a subject, he or she can find interesting people to talk with and ask good questions—that’s how lots of great stories are found.

From a December 8 post on the importance of knowing something:

In exploring that question, a writer sometimes would say, “I can write about anything.” That’s okay for lots of routine writing jobs but not at a magazine where the editor is trying to get readers to pay good money for really good journalism….

For most writers, it’s a big plus if you know a lot about something: health, education, government, politics, law, crime, technology, sports, food, something.

As an editor, I found that the best stories didn’t come out of editors sitting in the office brainstorming ideas. They came from writers who were out talking with people in their field of interest and discovering what was new, what people were talking about, what might make a good story. Almost all the great pieces in the Washingtonian came from writers who knew a lot about something.


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