Teaching Examples

Get smart about reporting
December 12, 2006, 1:33 pm
Filed under: citizen journalism, journalism, mojos, reporting

We all agree that something must change, because clearly newspapers have become irrelevant to many people in the local communities they claim to serve. The solo mojos at the News-Press in Fort Myers, Florida, certainly represent a change, and if they spend all day out in those communities, then maybe it’s a change for the better.

Leonard Witt readjusted my thinking — in a very good way. First, he criticized the superficial events-oriented stories that one Fort Myers mojo was filing. Then he got right to the essence of journalism:

Why not send him into a Ft. Myers neighborhood for a week or a month and make him feel like a member of that neighborhood and meet the people, hear their triumphs and tragedies? I think of my own neighborhood. There is the guy who spends his days cutting other people’s lawns, but with the caveat that he will try to save your soul. The guy who painted his house pink, in a place where no one paints their house pink. And he had a reason. The gerrymandering that separates our white neighborhood from the surrounding black neighborhoods. These are real stories that would smarten up the paper and its website rather than dumb them down by asking some random driver what he thinks of the road repair work on a Ft. Myers highway. Fighting to fill web space because of some preconceived notion that people are clamoring to read about chamber events is dumbing down. Drilling down into neighborhoods to find their real essence is smartening up.

Putting the reporters out on the streets is only the first step. It won’t change anything if reporters are still filing the same junk that no one cares about and writing as if this were all about facts and not about people.

It’s not rocket science, for crying out loud! People like to read stories. No one likes to read a fact sheet, an instruction manual, the minutes of a meeting. And stories have to be about something interesting (usually they are driven by the characters in them). A good writer can turn a dead leaf on the sidewalk into an interesting story.

So I don’t know whether the problem with newspapers is that the reporters don’t know what a story is, or whether it’s their editors who don’t know. But somebody should get a clue.

Witt puts this in terms of dumbing down the newspaper when you ought to be making it smarter. That struck me as a key element that is missing in a lot of these attempts to do new things at newspapers — perhaps too much effort is being spent on putting out stuff that assumes the audience consists of a bunch of YouTube-watching idiots.

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