What’s in it for me?

I’m deviating from the prompts this week to do some thinking-out-loud over a conflict my project group has had as we try to start interviewing and filming for our final project. It relates, in part, to a conversation we had in class yesterday about our “missions” for our projects.

Aside from clearly delineating what we want our story to accomplish, our mission statements, we discovered, also need to include a statement that gets at the “what’s in it for me?” attitude readers have. Don’t get me wrong — this is not a bad thing at all. If a reader is taking the time to give our work attention, it’s only natural that they try to figure out how they then benefit from having consumed it.

Journalists should always be thinking of the reader and how they can serve them best. We need to show people how what we do is valuable to them, and that requires thinking at the outset for why we’re doing the story in the first place. Why is this information necessary? Who might be interested by it? How can we tell someone something in a way that changes their behavior or improves their lives?

However, “What’s in it for me?” doesn’t end there. If readers feel that way, why do we assume sources don’t as well? Granted, we are under a different set of obligations and responsibilities to our sources, but there’s no denying that sources sometimes have an agenda when they work with us. There’s nothing sinister about it — it’s just the way it is.

For this project, in my multimedia class, we are at a complete loss for leverage with sources. Essentially, we can’t give them what they want — publication in a news outlet. Usually, a source has something to gain from working with journalists, be it publicity, raising awareness or something else. That benefit is hinged on a story being published and distributed to a wider audience. My group project will (very likely) not be published in a news outlet and won’t be distributed to a wider audience. Even though our work will be professionally produced, designed and put on a publicly available website, it just doesn’t have the reach a newspaper or TV station has.

I get that this is a given for many J-school classes. Students need the experience producing real journalism, and publication isn’t always possible. But it certainly puts my group and I at a significant disadvantage when trying to appeal to sources to work with us. It doesn’t matter how polite or professional my request is, or how much research I’ve done and how important the source’s contributions would be; by labeling myself as a student, I’ve already implicitly told my sources that there is nothing in it for them. Their message won’t reach as broad an audience, so they are free to turn me down with little to no harm to them.

Frankly, it’s frustrating. Even though I 100 percent understand the reasoning behind the source’s decision, and I know they get requests almost constantly to participate in student projects, it still injures my ability to tell the best story I can. I’ve lost a key source, and there’s not much I can do about it. In this case, there aren’t substitute sources that I might normally turn to. My group just has to deal with it and do what we can. Hopefully, others will have the flexibility and time to work with us.

This certainly won’t be our last stumbling block, but I’m hoping it’s the worst of what we’ll encounter as we move farther into our reporting and shooting process.