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Archive for May 13th, 2008

Reporting on record gas prices, again (and again)

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

I’ve commented before about how every turn in the wind seems to merit a weather story. And if you’ll recall, that means pretty much every weather story ever conceived has been written.

Now, let’s talk about another reporting phenomenon that’s quickly displacing the *eye roll*-inducing weather story: gas prices.

Why is it so tempting to report on gas prices? For the same reason weather is such a journalism staple. It’s easy to find a few real people to complain about it and throw in the national weather service forecast and totals (or in gas prices debate, AAA fuel gauge/Gas Buddy averages). Like severe weather, when gas prices spike, that’s all anybody wants to talk about. Including those of us in the newsroom.

A month ago, my twitter followers may remember, I noted that my jaw dropped to see $3.64/gal. It had jumped from about $3.44 to that new high mid-day. That $3.40 mark had steadily been reached. It had been inching its way there for weeks, perhaps months, years even. It was still a bit of a sticker shock to me because I remember just last year being utterly annoyed every time a $3 went out front. I even remember the summer I interned, when gas hit $3.15 randomly one day, I called my roommate at work (I was out taking a walk) to see if we’d been bombed or something because that was so high.

I know those in other countries or other parts of the country pay more, substantially more, and I shouldn’t complain. (I’m going to anyway, my mileage rate is 28 cents, and my schools are all over the place in this county and others.) It’d be one thing if it was always this expensive. But consider this, I’ve seen the price of gas nearly triple since I’ve been driving. And I’ve only been driving since I graduated high school — five years ago.

So back to the journalism. We report often when it reaches a record high. In fact, we keep tabs every day of the average price on our business page. But how does one report gas reaching a record high when two or three times a week it peaks again? Today for instance, we saw a $4+ gallon in the Greater Lafayette area.

I agree that is a huge deal, and regardless of records, the $4 mark represents a huge mental hurdle. How many people said they’d reduce consumption at $3/gal? I don’t think that many actually did. $4/gallon is just, well a lot. And put it in the context of the national debate about everything from alternative fuels — hello, that $4.05/gallon was in the same county as Biotown USA — to a gas-tax holiday, and there is definitely interest and likely some news.

But here’s the challenge: How do you make and keep it relevant? How many times can you write about Joe Schmoo spending $80 to fill up his pick-up and how hard it hits city budgets? What angles, what interesting standing features can we come up with to make a timely topic remain fresh and new? And when is it time to reign in the daily feature and put someone on an enterprise, long-term look into some of those ideas and this trend?

I don’t have the answers. But I think it’s a challenge that every paper and news organization really needs to consider. And I’m open to suggestions. I’ve already mentioned a few angles.

I’m going to throw out a few ideas here, and I’m just brainstorming right now. I’m sure many have been done. Some probably done to death. So, if you have any novel or different ideas, share them. I’m sure more than one reporter or editor is going to type in google “gas price story idea” or something of that sort in the coming months looking for an idea his/her paper hasn’t hit on yet. Let’s come up with a few good ones. Maybe then we won’t, and the readers won’t, need to roll their eyes are they read about “pain at the pump” for the umpteenth time this summer.

  • Tomorrow, our paper has a story on cities busting their already tight budgets with gas for their police cruisers/city vehicles and street sweepers who aren’t sweeping as often. What’s your city doing? Anything innovative? Are the cops patrolling as often? Is the dog warden out? Are they cutting back on cutting the park grass? Was their budget prepared with $4 gas in mind? If not, what will get cut?
  • What about schools? If you have rural counties like we do, consider how much it costs to bus those kids. Did your district budget for this jump? Are they considering charging more for field trips using school transportation? (One of my districts just discussed this at its meeting last night. In fact the two geographically largest school districts in my state are in my coverage area.)
  • How’s it impacting businesses:
    • Landscapers need to drive to their jobs and they need gas for their equipment. Are they charging more or cutting corners? What about farmers plowing, planting, harvesting their fields?

    • Other companies do a lot of driving may see a big impact: repairmen, pizza deliveries, florists?
    • Do you have a lake nearby? Are boat or jet ski rentals headed up?
    • Are RV sales down as fewer families take to the open road for road trips? ALSO: What about high school and college kids who might have taken a road trip this summer. Are they opting out or taking different routes?
    • What about taxi cab drivers who are especially impacted by a volatile market? (My father is a cab driver, and they haven’t lowered the lease he has to pay daily because gas has gone up. He’s absorbing the difference and just making significantly less.)
    • What about truckers? Are their profits down as their miles increase?
    • Similarly, will the ice cream man be making fewer rounds this summer due to higher gas prices?
    • Will churches/non-profits who serve elderly patients or make food deliveries need to scale back those efforts? What does it mean for social services in your community?
    • Are there more people working from home or telecommuting to work? Or are they carpooling? Are companies upping gas mileage or are they recruiting less from the suburbs?
    • Are gas stations seeing less sales on extras, like sodas and gum, as people struggle just to pay for the gas? What types of incentives are they trying to offer?
    • Car dealerships, at least around here, are offering things like $2.99 gas for three years or free gas for a year or whatever when you buy a new car or trade it in. Here’s a few things to look at related to this: How good is the deal. If you trade in your new SUV at a lower trade-in than it’s really worth you may be losing more money than saving. Alternately, check out those dealer specials. How much would you really save if you could secure free gas for six months or whatever the terms are. Dealers aren’t going to take a major loss. Arm readers with the knowledge they need to not get duped.
    • Is the local AAA seeing more people running out of gas as they tried to stretch out each fill-up? Could be interesting to follow them out to some people to find out their reasons for running out.
  • And don’t forget who’s benefiting in your community:
    • Are the “tree huggers” happy and getting more believers to join their cause?

    • Are car dealers selling more hybrids or economy cars?
    • Are bicycle shops seeing renewed interest?
    • Is ridership up on your city buses?
    • Has there suddenly been a renewed interest in mopeds or motorcycle riding? Or are you seeing more scooters and segways?
    • Local museums, parks, camp sites, etc. may see a boost in attendance when fewer people opt to go so far away.
  • Want to do human interest? Here’s a few quick ideas:
    • Go out and find five people to tell you about their very first car. When did they get their license? How much did it cost to fill it up? What did they do then that kids can’t do now? OR…

    • Find some individuals doing innovative things to avoid high gas prices. Chances are they’re out there installing solar panels or transforming restaurant oil. If you haven’t come across it, put a call out online or in the paper to ask people for suggestions/ideas. You’d be surprised some of the things you never thought of before.
    • Stand at a gas station or two and just do the following exercise. Fill in the blank: “Gas prices are ____.” Then ask the person to explain. Get a name and head shot, throw the question in a fancy, big font out front and then just have the head shots and answers carry the package. Not earth-shattering, but the answers would be unpredictable and fun.

Any of those stories could have a video or package to accompany it online. Some are more visual than others. Or just put together a fuel price map, which would be useful if you cull the Gas Buddy data or get really active users to offer input so it’s constantly updated.

Anyway, that’s just a quick brainstorming session so later this summer when my editor taps me for a gas price update I have a jumping off point. Any great ideas — especially non-traditional ideas since many of mine are quick-hit features — you guys have are welcome and would be awesome to add to my list.