Rail and the MediaBy OhioRailGuy
A disturbing observation as we see more and and mostly deserved attention paid to railroads and the role they play in moving people and freight: we are seeing a "Rail Renaissance" at precisely a moment when we have fewer and fewer print and broadcast media outlets with dedicated and knowledgeable transportation reporters.
In my job as a public information officer for a state rail commission, I am disappointed in the overall coverage of rail-related stories. And I speak also from the perspective of one who spent 22-plus years as a television reporter and one with deep family roots in the railroad business, so I've worked both sides of the tracks so to speak.
The lack of basic knowledge of modern railroading among reporters and editors (the folks who often write the headlines at a newspaper or the "teases" for a broadcast news show) is probably best summed up in the number of times I either hear or read the words "chug" or "chugging" in a story about trains. Trains haven't "chugged" since the steam locomotives either went to the scrapyards or museums. In fact, the advent of welded rail has made modern railroads comparatively quiet: no more "clickety-clack" (another least favorite phrase I see and hear).
But these words and phrases, though seemingly a minor gripe, are usually my first indicator that the reporter writing the story hasn't spent much time around a modern railroad. In some cases, it's because the reporter is literally a rookie, fresh out of journalism school. I'm okay with that as it gives me a chance to get the educating started: something that has yielded some positive results both in how a story is covered and developing a relationship based on trust with these reporters. If they can look upon you as a resource, whether it involves a story or not, that's a good thing.
The fact, however, that I am dealing with more "rookies" and fewer rail-savvy reporters is what is most disturbing. When I came to this job 6 years ago, every major newspaper in my state had at least one reporter assigned either full or part-time to the subject of transportation. Today, there is one.
Think about this for a few moments. Why is this important? It's important because at a time when transportation in general and rail in particular are so critical to both our economy and personal mobility, the majority of reporters covering the subject are either new to journalism or got assigned to the story because nothing else was on their agenda when a story arose. My state is advancing a major passenger rail initiative, and yet the state capitol's major newspaper has assigned a political reporter to the story... a paper that once had a dedicated transportation "beat" reporter but eliminated the beat and the reporter four years ago.
The guy isn't a bad reporter, but there is an almost cynical political edge to almost everything he writes, which is made only worse during an election year. All that a colleague and I can do is try to fight back with the facts and help this reporter better understand the process that a major rail project....like any transportation project.... goes through. I see some signs it is working. I don't say that with any expectations that we will see glowingly positive coverage. That's not the point. I would much rather simply see reporting based on the facts and not on either supposition or what misinformed, agenda-driven hot-air the reporter is being fed by outside interests.
I guess my point in all of this is to suggest to my fellow railroad professionals and bloggers that now is a good time to be reaching out to your local media. They are hungry for information about railroads and the industry in general. Take advantage of that. Build a relationship with these reporters and editors and get them to look upon you as a resource of reliable information. This business has a very good story to tell at an important time in our economy and our history.
Resist the temptation to either hang-up when a reporter calls or ignore their voice-mails or e-mails. The simple act of getting back to them in a timely fashion is appreciated, even if there's not much to tell them at that point. Again, having been that reporter on the other end of the line for 22 years, it is appreciated.
Take some time to meet with the editors and publishers at the local papers or the news managers at a TV or radio station. Use that time to pitch them on devoting more pint space or air time to transportation and railroads. At a time when we are seeing greater interaction between highway, aviation, waterways and railroads, we need to be po-active in making that intermodal "pitch".
Think of it in these terms. In order to have access to what we need in our lives, for whatever the purpose, there must be mobility. To the extent hat mobility is limited by a lack of options, our economy and our lives are also limited, whether it's a limitation to do business, get to a job, go to school or for other personal needs. We have a great opportunity to show how railroads increase those options.
OhioRailGuy is in the Public Information Office for the Ohio Rail Development Commission in Columbus, Ohio.
Copyright ©2010 progressiverailroading.com. Published 10/25/2010.