In this week’s installment of Best of the Week, Pennsylvania correspondent Mike Rubinkam shows us how to translate a local story for a global audience, give it scope and reach, and in the process build a following for ongoing coverage.
Rubinkam, who covers northeastern Pennsylvania, was watching his local 6 p.m. newscast when a story caught his eye: A beloved, longtime Walmart greeter with cerebral palsy had been told that his position was being eliminated in favor of a new “customer host” position.
The story immediately piqued Rubinkam’s curiosity. Was this a bigger story about the world’s largest retailer doing away with greeters who have been a hallmark of Walmart for decades? The next morning, he interviewed the man, Adam Catlin, his sister and a Walmart customer for his first story. That got a lot of attention on social media, but it was only the start.
Greeters like Catlin, who are often retirees or members of the local community that have disabilities, have been a fixture at Walmart for decades. Over the course of his reporting, Rubinkam learned from a disability rights group that Catlin was one of many greeters across the country who found themselves in the same situation as the company phases out the program. Instead, Walmart is using hosts that not only welcome customers but help them with returns, check receipts to deter shoplifters and keep the front of the store clean. It’s part of a strategy that Walmart and other chains are using as they compete with online retailers like Amazon.
Rubinkam was off and running with what turned out to be a series of three more stories, updating the public about Catlin's talks with Walmart and interviewing greeters across the country in the same situation. “What am I going to do, just sit here on my butt all day in this house?” one of the greeters told him.
To put faces with names, Rubinkam obtained handout photos of several greeters in their Walmart vests, and suggested a composite photo. Top Stories Hub producer Francois Duckett also created a graphic.
With each update, the story’s reach grew, with hundreds of online uses by AP customers and significant engagement on social media platforms. And Walmart was listening. After a week of Rubinkam’s coverage, the mega-retailer announced it would make every effort to keep greeters with disabilities.
The story was a classic example of the impact that the AP’s footprint can have. In this case, Rubinkam was able to bring attention to an issue that had surfaced locally but had not yet received national attention. And the outcome was a change in corporate policy at one of the world’s biggest companies.
Because of his smart, dogged and curious reporting, and for capitalizing on the AP’s global reach, Rubinkam earns AP’s Best of the Week award.