An editor at NPR once told me that when show producers there listen to a story before airtime, to give it the final thumbs-up or thumbs-down, there’s one question they always ask: “Why am I hearing this story today?”
In other words, what’s the peg? How is this story particularly relevant right now, in a way it wouldn’t be relevant next week, and wouldn’t have been relevant six months ago? We are in the “news” business, after all, and even those evergreen features we love so much still need to be oriented in time.
Since I started my independent editing and newsroom consulting business, I’ve been challenged on several occasions to make the case for news pegs – so many times, in fact, that I started to question my devotion to the concept. But I’m keeping the faith.
There’s this cool thing!
In any community, there are thousands of worthy charitable initiatives, creative artistic projects, whiz-bang scientific labs, innovative business ideas, and colorful characters. Can’t we just tell their stories because, well, they’re there? And they’re cool?
In most cases, um, no. One reason is precisely because there are thousands of those stories. You can’t possibly tell them all, and choosing between them can quickly stray into dicey ethical territory:
“Why did you cover the food bank’s initiative to feed hungry schoolkids, but not the program that helps refugees learn English and find work?” asks the angry listener/reader/viewer who volunteers for the refugee program every week.
If you have a good peg, or “hook,” the answer will be so evident in the story that the question won’t even come up. In fact, the peg should be at the very top of the story.
Next week, a local food bank will start teaching kids in high-poverty schools to raise chickens and grow vegetables in their backyards. The Greater Happyville Food Pantry is the first recipient of a nationwide grant aimed at ending childhood hunger through self-sufficiency.
But it’s not that easy!
Of course it’s not. Not every story will have such a strong peg. And pegs can be especially challenging with regular segments – the Monday business story, the Tuesday environmental slot, etc. But I would humbly suggest that if there’s no peg at all, you take a very hard look at whether the story is worth doing … at this moment in time. If the organization, business, or colorful character really is that fascinating, I’d be willing to bet that he, she, or it will do something worthy of coverage eventually, if you keep watching. And imagine how much better your story will be.
Your audience will notice
Certainly, readers, listeners, and viewers aren’t looking for news pegs, but they are looking for stories that are relevant to their lives and communities. They may not want to hear about the latest online startup (everybody’s got one) … but they might want to hear about a local company that’s bucking the trend and starting a manufacturing business. They might not be excited about the Ballet’s annual production of the Nutcracker … but if the Ballet decides not to do the Nutcracker for the first time in its storied history, well, that might make people sit up and take note. And isn’t that the point? To do relevant, meaningful stories that people will remember?
Happy peg hunting … and Happy New Year!