Whenever I ask a group of journalists to name a subject that would make their readers squirm - not call to complain, but squirm - they readily nod their head and start volunteering responses: race relations, education, the have vs. the have-nots, growth and sprawl.
Then I ask if they are covering these issues - and how? There is an embarrassed silence. They know there are stories in their communities they are not covering well - and they want to cover them. But, often, they're not sure how.
Sometimes, the topics transcend traditional journalistic conventions. They don't easily fit into standard definitions of what makes "news." And the signposts crop up in so many different areas that no team or beat reporters have clear ownership.
Usually the issues are less about obvious external conflict between two different stakeholders and more about figuring out subtler internal tensions that are manifesting themselves in a wide variety of ways in communities. Less about covering the noise in our communities - and more about covering the silences. Often the uncomfortable silences.
These stories - many of us call them master narratives - are far more important to our readers than much of our coverage of incremental daily developments. And an increasing number of newsrooms are pioneering coverage models. The coverage goes by other names as well: franchise issues, common themes, trend stories.
"I prefer to think of such stories as 'evolving narratives'," says Jeannine Guttman, editor of the Portland (ME) Press Herald. Guttman's newspaper has developed narratives about a statewide alcoholism problem in its award-winning, "The Deadliest Drug" and on teenage life in its "On the Verge" coverage.
"I understand the concept of a master narrative, but I think those words tend to limit our thinking and ultimately our reporting. The word master sounds like we have it all figured out. And I don't think we do."
Indeed, these narratives are not one-shot stories about a particular trend. Not even a big enterprise or investigative piece. Rather they consist of an ongoing, overarching, all-pervasive narrative thread that underlies daily news developments.
Put together, they are a body of work that pieces together and makes sense for readers the forces that are reshaping their world - the demographic, economic, social and cultural realities that would have been hard to imagine only 10 years ago.
New demographics in San Francisco or new venture capital in Northern Virginia. An influx of Hispanics in Nebraska or senior citizens in Savannah. Growth and sprawl in Denver. Rural vs. urban tensions in Idaho.
Newfound immigrants, failing education systems, rampant alcoholism, destructive domestic violence.
Think about master narrative coverage this way: You could cover venture capitalists. Or you can cover venture capital. If you cover venture capitalists, you follow the money. But if you cover the master narrative of venture capital, you will find yourself following changing social norms, happy-hour hangouts, commercial real estate trends, even new tech language.
In Silicon Valley, covering the master narrative of high technology is more than a story of software developers or dot-coms. It is also about the price of that prosperity, as KTVU television producer Roland DeWolk sees it: The loneliness of Indian computer experts, the saga of the rich and homeless, the "hope disparity" between the have and have-nots, the unparalleled new stream of waste created by new riches.
"In most communities, there are a few (and only a few) vital underlying issues that will largely determine the community's future," says Joe Smyth, board chair of Independent Newspapers Inc. and author of "Newsroom Guidelines for Independent Newspapers."
"The outcome of those issues will determine whether the community becomes a better or worse place to live and work, whether it thrives or declines," he wrote in a recent challenge to his editors. "Great community newspapers put a lot of effort into meaningful coverage of those vital issues."
Identifying those issues then becomes one of the newsroom's most important tasks. Newsrooms are using many strategies.
At the former San Francisco Examiner, an urban geographer at San Francisco State took staff members on tours of the city's changing neighborhoods and opened their eyes, their minds - and even their stomachs - to major demographic narrative, a "New City" unfolding in its very backyard. New people, new neighborhoods, new languages, new foods, new music, even new sports. And the paper followed that thread through 20 major stories in 1998 alone.
At the Columbus (GA) Ledger-Enquirer, Editor Mike Burbach embarked on a "small-r reorganization" by asking his staff: "What is the master narrative of Columbus?"
"It's a fascinating exercise," he said. "Some people answer the question from 50,000 feet and some from 5,000 feet, but there are definitely common themes. It's turned out to be a very useful question."
"What I tend to find is that they want to do journalism on the master narratives and they have thought about it. But they are looking - not for the permission - but for the mechanisms."
When a newsroom confronts hundreds of issues competing for attention daily, how do we journalists identify and focus on the ones that will really make a difference in our community? And, then, how do we stay ahead of the story?
Here are some other strategies that newsrooms have used:
Pay attention to micro news developments.
Sometimes, they may be little more than a series of metro briefs. Maine's series on alcohol addiction arose from the realization that alcohol was a common factor in a number of stories - car accidents, house fires, abused children, domestic violence - even suicides in the forest. Put together, they told an overarching story that rang vividly true to readers.
In Savannah, an influx of retirees - often wealthy retirees - not only changed the dominant age of the community, it also changed housing patterns, medical care, recreational needs, philanthropic giving - and even politics. Many of these folks now had the time, and money, to run for office.
Listen to your beat reporters.
When the St. Paul Pioneer Press began to chronicle the "New Face of Minnesota," senior editor Kate Parry noted, "As usual the first symptoms of population change came from the education team. They produced a story on how non-white students outnumbered white students in the Twin Cities public schools. Then they pitched a story on the 70 different foreign languages being spoken in the schools. Agriculture reporters told of turkey processing plants...where most of the workforce was Somali refugees."
Admit you don't know much about a growing segment of your community. Abandon your preconceived notions, shelve your stereotypes and venture out to report.
That's what reporters at The New York Times did in chronicling race relations in America. It's also what the Portland Press Herald did when editors realized they didn't know much about teen life and their own teen experiences were not that useful.
People don't simply want to hear the stories journalists have to tell. They want to tell their own stories as well. Create some space - civic space, cyberspace, op-ed space, news space - to let them do that. The process always generates more reporting opportunities for the newsroom.
The San Francisco Examiner, for instance, published several "First Person" accounts as part of its "New City" narrative.
For "On the Verge," the Portland Press Herald's series on teen life, the paper handed out disposable cameras and asked teens to photograph what was important to them and mail the cameras back. The paper posted several photos online with captions the teens had written themselves. "The cameras helped me connect with the kids, who had great stories to tell," said reporter Barbara Walsh. "I would regularly go online to look at the photos and read the cutlines the teens had written."
Ask some different questions.
When The Sun News in Myrtle Beach began grappling with growth in a "Boom Town," a few years ago, it distributed bright yellow postcards with a half dozen questions, including this one:
"What really makes you mad right now?"
"Tacky beachwear stores!" responded a significant batch of residents, to the surprise of the newsroom. This was not a subject that usually rises to a journalistic threshold, but nevertheless it was a clue about critical tensions in the community.
Snowball some responses.
Start with a short, diverse list of people involved in your community and ask them all the same question, suggests INI's Smyth. "What are the three most critical local issues, the outcomes of which will make a real difference in how nice your community will be in the future?"
Then ask what additional information they need on those issues and what other individuals or other communities might offer their expertise.
Finally, suggests Smyth, "Go public with the process," and let your readers respond with a feedback coupon.
Visit some "third places."
Stop and chat in these neighborhood gathering spots, places where people share information, and often you will see trends that you might have missed. "And suddenly it's very clear," says Kathy Spurlock, editor of The News-Star in Monroe, LA, who began to understand the frustration of neighborhoods that had no banks, no post offices.
Knock down some newsroom walls.
Are new restaurants opening? Get your food writers involved. New businesses? Try your biz reporters. Likewise, if there are new sports or new music or a new arts scene in your community.
Crunch some numbers.
Certainly new Census data will provide lots of new narrative clues. But then don't forget to look behind the numbers. When the Baltimore Sun saw that nearly 90 percent of the city's third graders couldn't read, it sought out more than the numbers. In its "Reading by 9" series, reporters delved into just how does a kid learn to read in the first place.
All the while, you need to keep building that database of contacts and sources. Then, once you have done all of that, you need to take care to ensure that your narrative doesn't become an outdated myth, a story that is no longer true.
Excerpted from "The Local News Workbook" to be released in April at the American Society of News Editors convention. To order, contact ASNE at 703-453-1122.