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From AJR,   October/November 2003  issue

The Power of Story   

What journalism can learn from country music

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

I guess I just never channel-surfed up that high before, but until a few weeks ago I didn't know I even had Country Music Television on my cable system.

When I stumbled onto it, CMT was in the middle of a documentary series on what its experts deemed the 100 best country songs of all time. I'm no C&W aficionado, but I nevertheless found myself mesmerized by the program, although at first I wasn't sure why.

As is common in this format, the program marshaled an eclectic chorus of commentators--performers, critics, writers, music industry types, even Maya Angelou (!) deconstructing Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler." And before long, I realized that song after song found them pointing out what a strong story was being conveyed. Say what you will about trucks, trailers and hound dogs, that narrative is a big reason for the enduring appeal of country music, a storytelling tradition that reaches back to its folk-music roots. If pop and hip-hop trade on the hormonal, country goes straight for the heart.

Everywhere on the "100 best" list you find stories. And this being country, many of them are none too pretty. "Fancy" is about a girl whose momma sends her into prostitution to save them from desperate poverty. "Independence Day" describes a long-abused wife who burns down the house--with her husband in it. The second-ranked song, "He Stopped Loving Her Today," by the great George Jones, is a heartbreaker about a man whose torch expires only when he does. (An alley cat of some note, Mr. Jones watched his ex, Tammy Wynette, cop the top spot with "Stand By Your Man," a story that even Hillary Clinton would come to appreciate.)

Not every story is anguished. "She's in Love with the Boy" is a feel-good number about Katie's inevitable love for Tommy, despite her dad's disapproval. (Only in country would teens rebel by getting married.) Even the Garth Brooks beer-hall anthem "Friends in Low Places" is actually about a guy who crashes the wedding of his former flame.

Now, lest you think you've mistakenly wandered into Ryman Auditorium, there is in fact a lesson in here for editors and producers.

People crave stories.

We call what we do "stories," of course, but in reality very few of them are. A story has a narrative arc--a clear beginning, middle and end--and interesting characters, dramatic conflict and resolution. The percentage of newspaper or local television pieces that fit the definition is microscopic.

Great journalists know this in their marrow. Gene Roberts--no slouch as a storyteller himself--used powerful narratives to help transform the Philadelphia Inquirer into a great newspaper in the '70s and '80s. Harold Ross and William Shawn of The New Yorker published nonfiction pieces that for drama took no backseat to the magazine's seminal fiction. Don Hewitt's "60 Minutes" forged the 15-minute journalistic short story into a television staple. Ernie Pyle was about stories. So was Mike Royko. So was Edna Buchanan.

Even the current spate of "reality" TV shows, execrable as they are, succeed because they trade on the primary colors of human nature--love, betrayal, lust, greed, failure and occasionally even redemption. We're such suckers for the human comedy that even when we know what's going to happen--think about those self-parodic "Behind the Music" specials--we can't help ourselves. Story is the second-oldest human addiction. (If you have to guess the first, maybe you need to get out more.)

So how does the news industry respond to this hunger?

Well, for one thing it tends to kill the venues where we were trained to find real stories, such as newspapers' local Sunday magazines or documentaries on local television stations. Or they drastically cut back the amount of time many reporters get to work on stories. Or they reduce the reach of their news coverage.

Or they crowd real stories out of their reports in place of lots and lots of short, punchy items--news by bulletin board. Consumers get plenty of who, what and where but almost none of the why or how--the two things they really care about.

Pulitzer winner Jon Franklin, our Merrill Chair here at Maryland and an authority on journalistic narrative, says in his terrific book "Writing for Story": "From the dramatic point of view, of course, the local reporter misses the point when, in typical news fashion, he concentrates on the culminating event--the awarding of a certificate or the arrest of a petty crook--while ignoring the actions that led up to that event. Most news stories are endings without beginnings attached."

My girls used to say when they were younger, "Daddy, tell me a story." Now I find them watching CMT.