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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Can newsroom sabbatical drive content improvement?

I consider myself a good observer. While I enjoy most of the articles I write, there are times when I am completely bewildered by the process of getting them published. Sometimes you have to fight to keep your angle or you have to fight to not have to resort to the fallback sources. Or the "tone" isn't right for the publication. And it struck me recently that one big problem is that mainstream media today is trying too hard to write for everyone.

Maybe more people will read if MSM takes a few lessons from personal and narrative writing, namely—KEEP IT SMALL. I’ve been learning how to write personal essays. It’s more or less trial-and-error, but all the successful writers will tell you to focus on small details and find what’s universal in those small details. That's what moves and speaks to readers.

It works. Think about a memory from grade school and be specific. What can you remember about the smell of the cafeteria? Or can you describe the feeling of swinging on the swings? How about the first time you sled down a big hill? Is there a particular Christmas morning that stands out in your memory? Describe the tree, the wrappings, the smell in the house, your PJs. That’s what I mean about small. Very focused events. Because chances are when you write about finding the doll stroller you coveted nestled on the green shag carpet before the chubby tinsel-laden tree, there are enough cues in that description to send readers off into their own memory. Maybe they’re reminded of green shag, or a treasured gift or the look of tinsel on a tree. Try it in your own writing or on your blog and see what happens.

I think the same can be said for many journalism stories. There’s a tendency to talk too much and to want to prove how much we know about a subject (I am guilty of this at times). Part of the reporting process, in addition to asking questions, is the ability to melt away in the background and to truly observe without interference.

It takes a little more time, particularly for investigative stories. But it can be done in smaller stories as well. Next time you’re out reporting, take notes of things you see and smell and hear and that strike you as odd or ironic or comforting or sweet or uncomfortable. It means trying just a little harder than the formula currently demands.

I think it's worth at least a 10 percent effort because frankly, some of the formulas no longer work and can be a detriment to readership.

Take, for example, the trend story. Time was when the journalistic buzzwords were “look for the trends.” But with so many people publishing on the Internet, trend stories don’t work. There’s always a backlash of people proclaiming, “That’s not my experience or reality.” Why here on Creative Ink, I’ve picked apart trend stories about mommies and female leaders.

Those stories, just like those that seek to play up generational labels, make sweeping generalizations that tend to turn off readers. I challenge you to compare a 1945 Baby Boomer with a 1965 Baby Boomer. That’s a 20-year span! Are we sure they all fit so neatly under the Boomer aegis? Methinks not.

I’m not alone in my disdain for the formula. Tim Porter of the blog First Draft spent many years as an editor at the San Francisco Examiner.

His site contains what he calls “The Quality Manifesto.” Here’s an excerpt:

Newspapers are not the victims of homicide but of suicide. They are not dying at the hands of demographic changes or emergent technologies. They are killing themselves with clichéd writing, formulaic stories, hackneyed photographs and adherence to a self-destructive, journalistic form that emphasizes breadth of news coverage over depth.

Newspapers don’t have a societal problem; they have a quality problem.

In an age of increasing public sophistication – and diversification – about media consumption, newspapers, for the most part, continue to produce a bland mixture of agenda and event coverage, he-said-she-said government news and an established array of feature stories focused on predictable characters who no longer elicit sympathy nor surprise from readers.

Whether editors plaster this daily spackle on paper or spread it on the Internet, the public is not buying. It is no longer good enough.

That’s some pretty strong language, but it seems as if nothing less than strong language is needed to shake the industry out of its stupor.

The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard just hosted its annual Narrative Journalism conference. This may be one I have to attend next year. There was a lot of hand wringing about the future of newspapers from the likes of Tom Wolfe, the father of narrative journalism and others in the industry. Former LA Times editor John Carroll talked about the need for narrative journalism in this wrap-up by Bill Kirtz on Poynter.

He termed narrative's attraction "eternal," from the days when primitive people sat around campfires and told stories. The genre is "never needed more than today, when we're bombarded with facts with no context," he said. "We need to gratify the reader's emotions and intelligence (to help them) make sense of the world."

Here’s what I’m talking about:

Tom French, the Pulitzer-winning St. Petersburg Times serial narrative specialist, offered many tips for immersion reporting, including these:

•When deciding whom to follow, "look for texture, vulnerability, contradiction, a clear line of action that will engage the reader and reveal character and theme."

Zoom in. Find a simple frame. Follow one love struck teen, not the whole seventh grade.

Get the details: the dog's name, the song title, the brand of the beer.

Keep asking: for their diary, for the contents of their purse. "Never assume your subject will say no. Time and again, you'll find that people are more generous and brave than you would imagine."

(Bold is mine.)

We’re in need of drastic measures in order to make ourselves relevant. Here’s a radical thought: Perhaps every staffer should be forced out on his or her own for a while to see how hard it is to set yourselves apart from the pack. Or even to experience the thrill and challenge of managing multiple stories for multiple markets. I'm not calling for a mass exodus, but I think some MSM journalists are too comfortable and haven't had that hunger that drives independent journalists to push themselves and the envelope.

Maybe we trade places for a while and send in the independents to find out if it's possible to sustain the level of creativity for which we strive under the pressure of daily deadlines.

Perhaps outside the confines, safety and security of a newsroom, journalists could discover or redisover how stimulating it is to set aside the stringent rules of inverted pyramid and begin to think like we talk. To simply tell a story as we hear it and see it.


Jill said...

Charu went in 2004 - she's got some good impressions. I've wanted to go for the last two years but haven't made it yet. You know I'm always up for that stuff.

Also - Tom Hallman's narrative nonfiction column in Quill has excellent advice for how to keep newspapers from containing/restraining writers so much. This month's is a perfect example.

Wendy Hoke said...

That's right. Here's the link to Hallman's column this month. And he was the one in Vegas who said reporters need to do a better job of writing from their heart and not from their head.

Wendy Hoke said...

Check that,
Do a better job writing from their heart and LESS from their head.