Stories that make people warm and fuzzy deserve love, too, just like unicorns and rainbows. (Made with Pony Creator by General Zoi)
The last, but arguably most important, of Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for writers is “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” In a blog post this weekend, former newspaper editor John L. Robinson suggested the same kind of principle for newsrooms.
Try this exercise: Ask readers — it won’t work if editors do this by themselves — where do you want us to focus? After they rattle off half a dozen, tell them to narrow it to two. Two is enough, given the number of reporters you have. We’re talking focus here.
Robinson gets to this point after realizing that most of the stuff in modern newspapers is old news that readers could find elsewhere — a point I made in an earlier blog post (Why news is a fungible commodity, and why that matters). He says readers are looking for unique content, and suggests the solution is to focus most of the dwindling newsroom resources on stories that fit that bill. In particular, his choices are investigative journalism and “stories, photos and videos that make you smile or feel better about themselves.”
You won’t find many traditional journalists who would disagree, at least publicly, with emphasizing investigative reporting. Stories that dig up wrongdoing fit the reasons most journalists got into the business, whether that’s wanting to be a crusader or wanting to have influence, wanting to be read or wanting to root out secrets.
But feel-good stories aren’t as popular with the profession. In part that’s because journalists are, as a group, cynical about their fellow humans.
Partly it’s because we suffer from the same irrationality that leads commenters on news sites to post under a dozen stories at a crack remarks like “How can you write about who serves the best macaroni-and-cheese in town when the U.S. is killing civilians in Pakistan?”
And a lot of it is our own fault. Our profession gives a lot of awards to bad-news stories. Our newsrooms give a lot of praise and career rewards to reporters who produce them. We focus so much on righting wrongs that when we try to cover things that are right, we often do it wrong. A paper I worked for used to have a daily feature that was supposed to profile someone who wasn’t otherwise in the news — which reporters tended to interpret as “someone who wasn’t newsworthy.” This is not necessarily a bad idea. There are a lot of interesting stories that don’t fit the conventional definition of news.
But the editors assigned these profiles on a rotation among the entire reporting staff, thus ensuring no one would take ownership. Most reporters took the attitude that no one they met on their beats could qualify, because by definition those people were part of the news. Before I got to town, I heard, things had gotten so bad that one profile’s sole hook was that it was the subject’s 12th birthday. That got the feature chased off the front page. Still, it persisted. We ran profiles of people who were dead (not at the time the profile was written, of course, but sometimes they’d be stockpiled and, well, it would turn out Death’s deadline was tighter than ours). I got to be a mini power-broker when I took over coverage of our local colleges, because the schools’ PR staff were noted for their ability to spot human-interest stories among the student bodies. If you were a reporter with a profile looming and no subject, I had just the drug you needed.
I’m not sure what the complete answer is to making our coverage of good news as interesting and professionally fulfilling as our reporting of crises and corruption. But I have a few thoughts:
1. With enough effort, it’s possible to find small moments that illuminate the human condition and are just fun to read or listen to. “This American Life” occasionally does entire hour-long radio shows around the theme of “stuff that happened this week.” The shows start with a collection of short bits before going into a few longer pieces. I find the longer pieces often disappointing — they sound too much like what the show does every week, only with the risk of duller topics. But those prologues, with brief clips — those are brilliant. In this clip from last year, the round-up includes an Ethiopian immigrant who takes the huge step of ordering tea in English. In another show this year, the prologue starts with a bit about little kids being prepared for a camping trip. I would love to read/hear roundups like this every week about my community.
2. People love affirmation, and especially affirmation they can clip and save. When I look at Twitter and Facebook to see what people are saying about my former employer, The Plain Dealer, I notice that teens — our weakest demographic — produce more than their share of messages directing their friends to PD stories. About what? About their schools’ teams or, more usually, about themselves — a mention of their name in any context, a boast about being named Player of the Week. I see parents boasting about their kids’ appearance online or, especially, in print — even if it’s just that their faces appear in a crowd shot.
We used to offer a weekly question to our Twitter Twenty — a group, with membership refreshed every month or so, selected from local people who were already active on social media. We’d round up their answers and pick some to run in print — and it was that last step, running some tweets in print, that really got them excited.
This isn’t a blazing insight. When a friend and I became co-editors of our high school paper, we sat down and talked about what would make the paper more popular. One thing we knew: Students talked more about the Weber News when their names were in it. So we made a commitment to try to mention every student (we had under 1,000 at the time) in print over the course of the year. I don’t think we quite made it, but I do know that we saw a lot more people reading the paper that year.
3. Feel-good stories usually don’t come out of government meetings or corporate offices. As a reporter, I was as susceptible to the sedentary lifestyle as anyone — staying in the office, or sitting in the office or meeting room of some official producer of news like a school board. At one point, our city editor ordered all of us reporters to get out of the office in the afternoons (as a PM paper, our deadline was around 11 a.m.) and “talk to the folks.” I beseeched my immediate supervisor: I covered bedroom communities where, by definition, “the folks” weren’t around during the day. The kindly assistant city editor told me that as long as I was out of the office in the afternoon and producing my quota of weekly stories, he didn’t care what I did with my time. I had a lovely apartment overlooking a city park, and that summer and fall were the most peaceful of my career.
With that history, you know I was skeptical when I heard about newsrooms where the staff was stripped of desk rights. Advance Digital was in the forefront of this movement, setting up musical chairs newsrooms — no assigned seats, and deliberately not enough desks to fit everyone on the staff at once. I had — and have — my doubts about how that actually works in practice. I could easily have gotten a great WiFi connection in my old Saginaw apartment overlooking the park.
But in principle, forcing reporters out of their comfort zones should be a good thing. If we get our staffs into the community, we increase the chances that they’ll come across interesting people and interesting stories that would be otherwise hidden.