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 AJR  Columns :    TOP OF THE REVIEW    

From AJR,   November 1999  issue

How Not to Be Interesting   

Just see that editors and reporters arenít interested.

By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     

It's past time to think about why so many newspapers are boring. Sharyn Wizda's story ("Breathing Life into Newsprint") offers useful suggestions.

But the question should be less about how "interesting" and more about how "interested." If the reporters and editors aren't very interested, the readers won't be. If you really don't know what's going on, you use gimmickry in a self-conscious struggle to be interesting.

How interested are reporters and editors? At many newspapers the preoccupation with packaging, processing and production, not to mention the insularity and self-preoccupation of the journalists, probably is the biggest source of reader boredom.

I keep hearing about why you can't get good stories from covering things, knowing things, digging up things.

For almost three decades, while circulation has been going down, most of the country's 1,500 or so dailies have gotten prettier and better organized. But in many cases they're not much better. Top managers may get into position because they're good packagers and have persuaded the boss that they do good meetings. They may not know much about where they live and how things work out there.

The emphasis on appearance and packaging was needed. Color and lifestyles coverage were imperative. Usefulness became a more self-conscious pursuit; and in some ways (tabular content, various small bits of helpfulness to the reader) newspapers improved.

But all of this is the conventional wisdom now. And it has been for three decades.

As papers have moved that way, a generation and a half of new journalists have been heavily influenced by this conventional wisdom. Mid-level editors have been hammered into compliance. Many have risen without knowing much about the territory.

It might be hard to prove this, but I feel sure of it: Newspapers knew more about what was going on when old-line beat reporters and politically conscious editors were more prevalent.

If you hoofed it out there, you learned who did know what was going on. You saw the value of finding good sources not just for the day's stories but for the larger picture: the thinking guys up in the woodwork, not always quoted on even their most useful insights.

You have to go find them, get time with them, interpret them. Shoes should have to be resoled more often. Even editors' shoes.

There are still too many procedural process stories: those focusing tightly on a legislative or bureaucratic move that took something from step A to step B, before step C and the rest of the alphabet.

In a seeming contradiction, though, there are too few stories about how things work, who has what power and who doesn't. This is partly because editors and reporters don't know--and can't find out by staying in the newsroom and by having meetings.

The new thinking among the editors has become the old encrusted thinking. We don't have to throw out what we've learned in the past 30 years. But let's get interested out there.