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Chapter 4. Formats > Build a Great News Podcast

Hack 21. Build a Great News Podcast

Create your own podcast news show to shed light on stories that never would have been covered otherwise.

Podcasting is a new frontier in terms of more than just technology. While several national and international news outlets (e.g., National Public Radio, the BBC, etc.) are starting to make their content available as podcasts, a few independent "cyberjournalists" are among the first using the medium to offer standalone news coverage. This fits the independent spirit of journalism. You can become a member of the fourth estate by creating a news show that presents a unique point of view and explores topics that never would have been covered otherwise.

As a podcaster, you are your own editor, producer, and host. This means you'll have the flexibility to dig up information and uncover stories that interest you, but it also means you'll have to be extra vigilant when it comes to getting the facts right.

4.3.1. Types of News

Several different styles of news shows lend themselves to podcasting. The exception is breaking news, which is a real-time format where the news is reported as it's happening. Podcasting isn't suitable for breaking news because podcasting is a time-delayed medium. But you can still cover the same stories as conventional news; you just need to concentrate on providing exclusive information or unique analysis and perspective.

Here are several styles of news that are ideal for filling a podcast:

Specialty or trade journalism

Use your area of expertise to cover stories that are unique to your industry or your personal interests. This is the essence of narrowcasting [Hack #20]. This approach almost guarantees you'll have listeners, because you'll be targeting a niche market.

Civic journalism

Advance the public good by promoting an understanding of community issues. Civic journalism explores the rights of community members, and presents the voices of those who are participants in the issue at hand. Civic journalists must be extra vigilant to avoid advocating or promoting one side over another.

General-interest news

Go a step further when it comes to the stories you'd find in a daily newspaper. These stories can be about anything of regional or national interest. Your challenge is to advance the story, or to provide a fresh or alternative perspective. Find a way to narrow your coverage by focusing on a geographic area, or on stories about a particular topic.

Investigative reporting

To tackle this kind of reporting, you'll need to use your skills in research, winning people's trust, and putting puzzles together. This is in-depth reporting on topics not yet noticed by other media. Thorough investigative reporting is incredibly time consuming: you need to be sure your sources are reliable, double-check the information you uncover, take complete notes, and avoid missteps that can get you into legal trouble.

News analysis

Explore topical issues and provide perspective on the "news of the day." Sunday morning television news programs are examples of news analysis shows. Instead of talking to the "news makers," a group of analysts, reporters, and columnists talk to each other about the news. As the host, you should provide facts, ask for analysis, and then play devil's advocate, challenging analysts to defend their opinions with facts and evidence.

If you experiment with different styles of journalism, don't do so within the same podcast. Listeners expect you to be consistent. You compromise your integrity as a reporter or producer when you blend styles, because each kind of journalism serves the public in a different way. Decide which style of journalism you're most interested in, and work within that style for a while to avoid confusing your audience.

Once you decide which style of journalism is right for your podcast, decide on a format. Any of these styles of journalism could easily fit into a newstalk format, and with a bit more work, they could fit into a magazine-style format.

4.3.2. Newsgathering

Newsgathering starts with observation. Look at the world around you, read a wide range of periodicals, and talk to people you encounter every day. Eventually you'll notice something out of the ordinary or you'll find a small piece of information to follow up on. How you follow up on that information is related directly to how accurate your news reporting will be.

Solid journalism is based on thorough research. As you look into a possible story, keep an open mind. Many times a reporter begins looking into one story, and finds a different story altogether. Don't get so focused on what you think the story is that you close your mind to other directions for the story.

4.3.3. Sources

To build a story, you need facts, and facts come from different types of sources. Each story you report should come from a variety of sources. Never rely on a single source for a story. Official sources.

Civic, municipal, or commercial institutions employ people for the specific purpose of talking to the media. These people will give you "the party line," or the institution's perspective. Always weigh information from official sources critically, because their goal is to protect the institution's reputation.

Institutions such as the military, or police and fire departments, have "public information officers," who are often listed in the front of the phone book. Most government entities, businesses, and other organizations list media contact information on their web sites. When in doubt, call the main phone number and ask to speak with the person who handles media requests.

Ask the organization's press contact to arrange for you to talk to someone within the organization who's close to the issue. This is standard procedure, so most of the time, they'll assume you want an interview with that inside person anyway. Be sure you know in advance the name or title of the person you want to interview, and have a firm grasp on the issue you want to find out about. Once you reach the source, be ready to do more listening than talking. Remember to keep an open mind, while also thinking critically about what you hear.

Don't be surprised if you have to try more than once to get an interview with a key person. Communications people are always busy, especially when their organization is in the news, and naturally, they will serve larger media outlets first. If you are patient, and you develop a relationship with the press contact, you will get an interview eventually.

You might be tempted to forego official sources, but this is not a good idea in most reporting. Government entities, large corporations that benefit from tax breaks, publicly traded companies, and service or utility companies are all accountable to the public. As a journalist, you are representing the public's interest by pursuing an official source. Unofficial sources.

Unofficial sources are integral to good reporting. The ideal unofficial source will have personal experience related to the issue, or a long history of following the issue at hand. Often, you have to think creatively to come up with a good unofficial source. Networking can help: sometimes you can ask a more obvious source if he knows of anyone else you should talk to. Publicity sources.

These sources come to you with information. But for that to happen, you'll need to get onto their press lists. Companies, grass-roots organizations, publishers, trade associations—they all send out press releases. You can turn a press release into a story by thinking critically and looking at all sides of the issue. Generally, there's a high noise-to-signal ratio when it comes to publicity material—you'll discard more information than you'll follow up on. Analysts.

An analyst's job is to stay informed and write or think about issues. Universities, think tanks, and other journalism outlets are a few places to find analysts. Be aware that while some analysts attempt to be unbiased, others, such as those with conservative or liberal think tanks, have a very specific perspective to promote. Other sources.

You can get information to help you understand an issue for reporting or discussion on your show in a variety of nonsource ways. Review past news articles, conduct interviews off the record (see the next section for what's involved with that!), research web-based information, and examine public records.

Journalists follow the two-source rule. This means you confirm information you get from one reliable source with another reliable source, or you find multiple, independent accounts of the information. Always be sure you can verify the facts you are reporting.

4.3.4. Touchy Situations

Reporting the news is a serious endeavor, and mistakes can have serious ramifications. The following subsections cover some of these common issues and provide advice and resources to keep you out of trouble. The public's right to know.

You can gain access to government documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which weighs the public's right to know against an institution's desire for secrecy. The Society of Professional Journalists offers an FOIA toolkit (http://spj.org/foia.asp). The Freedom Forum (http://www.freedomforum.org/) keeps tabs on FOIA requests in progress. Anonymity.

Never promise anonymity to a source. Even if you are going to grant anonymity, always qualify that by saying you will "do your best." Journalist shield laws vary from state to state. You might be compelled to reveal a source at a later date.

You can allow a source to speak off the record, but you can't use that information in your story. Off-the-record information is used as background only, to help further your research. A source who won't give her name might not be trustworthy, or might have an axe to grind. You'll have to do your homework, and find someone else willing to go "on record" with the information.

Follow these steps to decide if you can leave a source's name out of a report:

  • Is this person's information or perspective essential to the story? If the answer to this is yes, ask the following questions:

    —Am I placing the person in economic jeopardy by identifying him? (An example is a salesperson that could be fired from his job for blowing the whistle on price-fixing practices.)
    —Am I placing the person in physical jeopardy by identifying her? (An example is a victim of spousal abuse who's in hiding from her abuser.)

An unpopular view is not a reason to grant anonymity to a source. Never do this. If you do, your integrity will be compromised severely. Slander.

Slander [Hack #67] is something a podcaster needs to watch out for. Don't let these potential pitfalls scare you, or keep you from building a great news podcast. The most exciting aspect of journalism is navigating the various truths of all sides in an effort to tell the story accurately. That's why there is so much publicity when a journalist fakes a story or doesn't do the proper research. The challenge of always "getting it right" is part of what makes the calling an honorable one.

4.3.5. Resources

Here are a few resources for podnews journalists:

The American Press Institute (http://mediacenter.org/)

Offers a cyberjournalist's site, as well as a journalist's toolbox.

The Pew Center for Civic Journalism (http://pewcenter.org/)

Offers tools and techniques for journalists who seek to advance the public good.

The Poynter Institute (http://poynter.org/)

Offers blogs, columns, and email lists related to journalism and journalistic ethics. The center also answers ethics questions for journalists on occasion.

Radio College (http://radiocollege.org/)

Offers books and articles about journalism. The site is geared toward independent radio producers, but almost everything there applies to podcasting as well.

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (http://www.fair.org/)

Keeps the media on its toes. You can learn a lot by reading what they have to say about mainstream and alternative media outlets.

With these resources, your commitment to thorough reporting, and your enthusiasm for your subject matter, you should be well on your way to building your own narrowcast news show.

4.3.6. See Also

Stacy Bond

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