Affordable Health Care Act: Translating it for readers

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Jane Nicholes
Small-town newspapers need not be daunted by the challenge of explaining the Affordable Health Care Act to their readers.

In Morristown, Tenn., the Citizen Tribune rolled out a special section Oct. 6, and set up a dedicated page on its website. The goal is to give readers as much basic information as possible on how "Obamacare" will actually work in their own communities.

Similar efforts are underway in some 30 other small dailies and weeklies that make up Lakeway Newspapers in Tennessee, Missouri, Virginia and Florida, said Mike Fishman, publisher of the Citizen Tribune.

Download a PDF showing this special section
A special section is, of course, a standard approach. But the webpage will be updated as the Health Care Act begins to affect individuals' lives, and will serve as a one-stop resource and archive.

"In real live time, people are going to rely on the newspaper, I think, to get that information," Fishman said. "Yes, their employer is going to give it to them, and yes, they're going to hear it from their friends. But the vast source is going to be the local newspaper, and we're just going to use the credibility that we've established."

The six-day Citizen Tribune in East Tennessee circulates 25,000 on Sundays and 20,000 on weekdays. Like everyone else, people in Morristown need information on what they may be eligible for, what health insurance might cost and how to apply.

The package relies heavily on The Associated Press for overall explanations and examples, graphics and interactive web features, said Managing Editor John Gullion. He praised AP for its thorough preparation and for providing resources most smaller clients simply don't have.

Stories by Citizen Tribune reporters addressed local issues such as mental health implications and the possibility of a shortage of physicians.  What the Citizen Tribune won't do is rehash the national health care debate, Gullion said.

"Here's the tricky part for us, and I think for anybody else," he said. "A lot of people have opinions, but not very many people have facts at this point. I really want this thing to be about facts and not opinion."

Reporters were instructed to stick to the nuts and bolts of how the Affordable Health Care Act is supposed to work, Gullion said. "It's a huge issue that's going to affect everybody's life, whether they like it or not," he said.

Smaller newspapers in the Lakeway chain may not offer the same volume of coverage, but each can customize their web pages, Gullion said.  "There are going to be some really small communities in Florida and Tennessee and Virginia and Missouri whose websites are going to be, on this issue hopefully, robust," Gullion said.

The packaging ensures readers won't miss individual stories, and they can return to the websites for new information and further study.

"If you need to know how the Affordable Health Care Act is going to affect your life, the Citizen Tribune website is going to have it for you," Gullion said. "And that's really kind of amazing."

For more information, email Citizen Tribune Publisher Mike Fishman at ctpub@lcs.net.

Jane Nicholes is a freelance writer and editor based in Daphne, Ala., and a former editorial writer for the Press-Register in Mobile. Email her at jbnicholes@att.net.

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