I Have to Ask: What I Learned from a Decade as a Reporter

Posted on October 16, 2018

City of Battle Creek

In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week, Jessica VanderKolk, Communications Manager, City of Battle Creek, Michigan, writes how working as a reporter prepared her for a career in local government. 

Spending a decade as a newspaper reporter, some of that covering local government, set me up for success on the inside in some important ways.

While it is unfortunate that newspapers have downsized, it is to the benefit of our municipalities that many reporters find new communication roles; we former reporters have the experience of storytelling for a community and, of course, have experience knowing what reporters need. There is so much value there.

Here are some of the other things I’ve learned, which help make Battle Creek communications a success.

1 – How to ask questions for the neighbors living in our city.

In every piece I write, and in every document I proofread, I view it like it just arrived at my home.

This is critical – part of our city’s mission is to ensure a prosperous community. That includes prosperity in knowledge and understanding. Someone who does not understand a service we are providing, or work we are doing, may lose trust in us and question our motives. Our work to bring prosperity to that person will become immensely more difficult if this continues.

I will ask questions of our team, and often recommend including more information in our communications. Anticipating questions now can save us from answering them multiple times later.

For example, our Department of Public Works drafted a variety of documents related to our replacing lead water pipes from the street to the home, at no cost to the homeowner. Part of any work in which we have to turn off water includes the possibility of sediment in the water, and our advice to run the faucets until the water runs clear.

I know from experience that many of our neighbors will ask if they will be compensated for the need to flush. I encouraged our team to include the answer in the initial notice, so we take fewer of those questions later on. (For the record, the answer is no.)

2 – How to write for your audience.

One of the things you learn in journalism school, and as a reporter, is that you are most likely writing for an audience, on average, reading at a third-grade, fifth-grade, or eighth-grade level. The level depends on where you get your statistics; a 2016 Washington Post report quoted the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development finding that 50 percent of U.S. adults cannot read a book written at an eighth-grade level.

While our neighboring community service organizations are working through the literacy problems we face, our municipalities have important information to share, and part of our duty in providing municipal services is to try our best to ensure our neighbors understand them.

The words we use go a long way in connecting with our communities. It can be challenge to get our staff experts to explain the jargon of local government – they are experts, after all, and they understand the language. But we are failing our neighbors if they don’t understand.

I use simple language when I can. Back to the water notifications – one letter notes that any turf disturbed during work will be replaced. Change “turf” to grass or lawn. Water infrastructure information often refers to a neighbor’s “water service.” Call it a pipe.

Again, I challenge our team to think like a neighbor receiving a communication at home, knowing nothing about the project or service. Is it easy to understand what we’re saying? If not, simplify. Local government can be extremely complicated, and we must make it easier to digest.

This includes using photos, graphics, and videos to help demonstrate and educate. Our National Citizen Survey this year found that 86 percent of our neighbors consider a cell phone their primary phone (including those who say “both” a cell and landline are primary). Sharing information with minimal scrolls will help keep neighbors looking at our information a little bit longer. Using visuals is a great way to achieve this.   

3 – How to find new ways to tell the same story.

Just like the annual Grange Fair in the area of State College, Pa. (where I was last a reporter), local governments repeat services. We fill potholes continuously. Our trash hauler collects yard waste starting every spring. In Michigan, it snows every winter. We know from experience that we will always catch someone who didn’t see the information before. We repeat and re-educate often.

For those neighbors who continue to follow along, and to keep up with where our neighbors are, we have to think creatively to share the information, and hope to pick up more neighbors along the way.

At the Grange Fair, you pick different foods to review, and look for new events, or people behind the scenes you haven’t met.

In Battle Creek, we think of how to spruce up our Snowtifications campaign – the weekly tips and reminders we give about snow operations from November to April. We’ve created a logo, and a funny name. This year, we’re planning short videos for the things we can visibly demonstrate, like moving your street basketball hoops, and how to get your mailbox replaced when it’s hit by a plow (we keep a stockpile).

It is critically important that we tell our municipal stories, and do so in a way that connects to our communities in meaningful ways. My bonus No. 4 tip would be to engage! Then engage some more. It can be a grand time vacuum, especially around big issues, but it puts us out there, with a human voice, and lets our neighbors know we’re listening.

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