VPA conference was a fount of ideas

By Amelia Heymann

Virginia Commonwealth University

I learned a lot from the many speakers at the Virginia Press Association’s 2017 conference – including the Pulitzer-winning writer Tom French and Jeremy Gilbert, the director of strategic initiatives for The Washington Post. But what I found to be the most useful workshop was “50 Ideas in 50 Minutes,” presented by Brian Couturier, managing editor of Petersburg Progress-index, and Tim Schmitt, of GateHouse Media. In less than an hour, Couturier and Schmitt took the audience on a tour of dozens of intriguing story possibilities, from quick hits to deep dives. They were the kinds of ideas that really get you reporting proactively rather than reactively.

Here are the story ideas I liked best:

• How walkable is your town? Using the website walkscore.com, you can see how easily people in your area can walk to places like libraries, grocery stores and pharmacies. For example, while the center of Richmond may have a high “walkscore,” like 95, outlying areas may have a walkscore of only 11, meaning you’d need a car to live there.

• What are the rules for off-duty police officers? Rather than waiting for an incident to occur, report ahead of time what the protocols are for your local law enforcement. A good question to ask is “Can cops use a police car to work private functions?”

• How did certain streets get their weird names? This subject is a good feature because people love learning odd facts about their town. You can also create community engagement by reaching out to your readers on social media to see if they know how streets were named.

• Are sports and religion conflicting? While Sundays are when many religions have services, they are also the day many school sports teams have competitions. Is this impacting religious worship in your community?

• Is cosmetic surgery on the rise in your area? Find out how many cosmetic surgeons are in your area, and if any of their procedures are covered by insurance.

The workshop also offered some general takeaways for effective reporting. One was to use old photos on social media. It’s content your publication probably already has, and people love to look at them. Also, tell a story over time by running a series of articles. Rather than publishing one article on weird street names in your town, make it a weekly feature. And show what’s opening. Make a simple map of restaurants and/or stores that are opening up in the area that month. It’s a simple interest piece that will generate a lot of views.

If you didn’t attend the VPA conference, I highly suggest going to VPA’s website to look at the slideshows that have been posted. You’ll more than likely learn something new.