Fifty Ways to Serve Your Readers  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2013

Fifty Ways to Serve Your Readers   

Five decades after he received his first byline, a journalist and journalism educator lays out some things he has learned—befitting the era of BuzzFeed, in a bunch of lists.Mon., June 24, 2013.

By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     



Professor Carl Sessions Stepp.

(First of a Series)

I want to tell you a story.

In fact, I've always wanted to tell you stories.

And for 50 years people have actually paid me good money to do that.

This particular story is about those five decades and some lessons I've learned. The peg, the reason to tell the story now, is that my first news article appeared in the summer of 1963, exactly 50 years ago. I was a rising high school sophomore and volunteered to cover a baseball game in my hometown of Bennettsville, South Carolina. The story appeared in my local paper, the twice-a-week Marlboro Herald-Advocate.

It carried my byline and changed my life.

From that point forward, I had to write. I've stayed connected ever since to storytelling in its broadest sense: reporting, writing and editing news, features and opinion.

In this series of five posts, I'd like to share some insights: 50 lessons from 50 years. They deal with nitty-gritty reporting up to Big J Journalism. I have written and spoken about most of them before, but this seems a good time to bring them together.

After all, it's been a half century, and journalists are addicted to anniversary stories.

The lessons come in no special order, except that I start with the most important one.

1. Reliable information is a primal human need, and providing it is a noble service.

News isn't quite as vital as air, food and water, but it isn't far behind. We need good information to thrive. From the time early peoples needed to know which berries were poisonous and where the bears hid, humans have required dependable information about their world.

The quality of our information is a key variable, maybe the key, in how we fare socially, politically, economically and professionally.

Democracy itself requires reliable information. As the 19th century journalist Ida Wells put it: "The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press."

Whether revealing facts through news articles or helping us understand them through features and opinion, storytellers are irreplaceable. Their work is noble. We can debate how that work will be conducted and, especially, paid for in the future. But we should never doubt the enduring viability of good journalism itself. We could not live without it.

2. New media are changing journalism more than we sometimes realize.

For all their technical marvels, I think the biggest change new media bring is interactivity. They give everyone the potential to not only consume but produce content. They bring citizens into news production from its beginning, not as passive recipients at the end. All this democratizes, demystifies and disempowers traditional media in unprecedented ways.

3. New media are changing journalism less than we sometimes think.

At the same time, the essence of journalism stays stable. Even as technology changes radically, good journalism still comprises the best practices of gathering, assessing, organizing and distributing information. The mission remains clear-cut and invaluable in the marketplace.

4. Writing is harder than it looks.

Like poetry, good prose looks from a distance to be effortless. Most writers read too much. We come to recognize great writing and to aspire to match it with our own. So when we write something that doesn't measure up to the ideal in our mind, we panic, freeze or lose confidence. We overlook how much hard work goes into clear and interesting writing.

The lesson: Let aspirations inspire but not paralyze. Keep writing. Practice, practice, practice. As Natalie Goldberg points out in "Writing Down the Bones," the one essential in writing is to "keep your hand moving."

5. What I learned from interviewing Miss America.

After I started at my hometown paper, I didn't stop. I covered sports and school activities, then got paid for full-time reporting in the summers. One year, Miss America--a very big deal back in the 1960s--found her way to our rural part of the world, and I was assigned to interview her at a motel's poolside.

Like an awestruck schoolboy (well, I was an awestruck schoolboy), I cruised the pool area looking for this glamorous creature. I walked past her two or three times before someone pointed out that the regular looking young woman, dressed casually and wearing little makeup, was indeed Miss America.

Once I got past my stereotypes and saw her as an individual, we had a good talk.

This lesson applies to celebrities and non-celebrities alike.

6. Make them say "wow."

I sometimes ask classes to go through a news report and shout when they find something amazing. It's sad how long it can take. Newspeople are great at publishing pretty good work but not so good at publishing the great. But readers burn for the amazing.

I was watching TV once when my son Jeff interrupted to do a card trick. "Pick a card," he said. Indulgently and keeping an eye on the TV, I did, then gave it back. He shuffled, threw all the cards into the air, reached out, grabbed one and showed it to me. It was the card I had picked. "Wow!" I exclaimed, forgetting the TV. He had seized my full attention.

That's what we need to do more often with readers.

7. Two habits of top writers.

Deadline-driven journalists write in a hurry. That haste often leads to shortchanging two key steps: organizing and revising. In working with hundreds of writers over the years, I have observed that the best ones make extra time for these key stages.

Disorganization, especially on longer pieces, may chase readers away faster than anything else. A few minutes spent planning or outlining will wondrously improve unity and cohesion.

Allowing time for revision--especially of key components like the lead, the nut graph or the ending--can provide the deluxe polish that characterizes excellence. Does it really make sense to sell people our first drafts?

8. "The duty of journalists is to serve the truth."

These words once began the ethics code of the Society of Professional Journalists. The code has been reworked, but I've never found a better one-sentence definition of our role.

9. Writing is a private act but publishing requires teamwork.

Writers are by nature reformers. We desire to change the world by sharing what we know and feel. This is a personal and intimate activity.

But to be published, a writer must hand off the precious work to others, usually editors. It is almost shocking how writers at some point almost totally lose control of their work.

Understanding this sensitive dynamic is essential. Editors should cultivate the writer's independent vision and treat it with care. Writers should appreciate the insights and creative synergies of working within a group.

The best newsrooms make the most of both individual talent and collective wisdom.

10. Writing for a living is a privilege.

Yes, it's hard and often low-paying, but the writing life is thrilling and singularly satisfying. Willa Cather, a journalist before she was a Pulitzer-winning novelist, observed, "Never forget that the pen is mightier than the plow-share. By this I mean that writing, all in all, is a hell of a lot more fun than farming. For one thing, writers seldom, if ever, have to get up at 5 o'clock in the morning and shovel manure."


Tuesday: What I learned from Richard Nixon, and why more thinking in the newsroom would bring about better journalism.

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