From AJR, November 1999 issue
Breathing Life Into Newsprint
Let's face it: Too often newspapers are boring. But some editors are pushing hard to produce more compelling stories and take the tedium out of the medium.
By Sharyn Vane
Sharyn Vane has written and edited at papers in Colorado, Florida
IT WAS ONE OF Cindy Gorley's first weekly planning meetings as metro editor at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. At 12:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, her seven deputies dutifully filed into the meeting room, budget printouts in hand.
"OK, so what do we have today?" Gorley asked.
The drone began as heads bowed to start reading budget lines. "We have the Atlanta City Council budget...." And so on. And so on.
"OK, stop!" Gorley interjected.
Eyes popped up from budgets.
"I just made us do that because I wanted to see how ineffective this meeting has become."
Out went the budget recitations. In came a new system, in which editors would bring to the meetings the top five stories their reporters were working on that week. They started talking about how they could reshape stories, do something different with them, something more readable. They started looking ahead and planning more. When a "smart growth" meeting was scheduled in Atlanta recently, for example, Gorley's group tried to craft a scene-setter that was something more than just, well, a scene-setter. Someone noted that the meeting was taking place at Emory University, a huge landholder in Atlanta. So the story became: How smart has growth been at Emory?
Gorley's meeting upheaval is one attempt at cracking what seems to be the hardest of problems for newspapers: making the stories in them interesting. It shouldn't be this difficult: Editors say they want good stories. Reporters say they want to write them. And certainly, readers aren't going to do much more than scan the headlines and the first couple of paragraphs without them.
So what's the problem? Because even though everyone says they want their papers to be interesting, it's not happening on a regular basis. Sure, most can pull it together for a special Sunday package, or a well-written profile of someone particularly fascinating--those are the gimmes. But why can't newspapers do it day to day? And how hard are they really trying?
Take the average paper. Go ahead, pick it up. How much of it have you really read? (Especially if today happens to be Monday, traditionally one of the least inspiring editions if there hasn't been breaking news.) Let's guess what you're looking at: a few wire stories on the front, maybe one from overseas, one on something Congress or the White House is doing. A couple of local stories--if you're lucky, the 8-inch 1A brite. Anything from sports out there? What about features? Anything really surprise you?
Now go to the metro section. It's probably a step down, because, as any metro editor will tell you, the best stuff gets raided for 1A. There they are, the city council, the school board, maybe the planning and zoning folks, all regulars. There's the centerpiece feature, which hopefully has a tad more substance than yesterday's street festival.
Does anything on the page really grab you? Are you getting sucked in by detail-driven, evocative writing? Nope? Just tossing it aside and starting another day?
We thought so.
Indulge us. Give us a little bit of your time, and let's see what some papers are doing to try to break out of the mold.
"There are a thousand things that we ought to do every day to make our stories better and more appealing, and I'm tempted to say the press of time is the culprit," says Rick Tapscott, metro editor of the Des Moines Register. "But that's a cop-out. You can do a lot in 30 minutes."
TAPSCOTT'S COMMENT alludes to one of the biggest bugaboos--inertia. This is the way we've always done it, inertia reassures editors. As long as we have a lead story and maybe a news feature and a couple other stories to round out the page, we're doing OK.
But think about the effort when breaking news happens. The Big Story--a natural disaster, a mass murder, some local business going belly-up. Reporters and editors do well at the big things because they're excited by them. This is big news, and there are going to be boxes, by God, and maybe even a map and some graphics. And reporters talk to the real people editors are so fond of saying they need to talk to with hardly any problem at all, because they're fueled, they're in the zone. Reporters are out there in the field knowing exactly what they need and as their subjects are saying it they're scribbling it down furiously (This guy is my lead, they're thinking), and they go back and whip up stories of the first order that everyone, even the readers, like, because they're interesting.
Reporters don't feel that way, generally, when they're at a city council or school board meeting. Slumped in their seats, they are not reveling in the excitement of what the mayor is saying. Yes, they're writing down exactly what they need--the quote from the mayor, the quote from the angry resident--but there's a rote feeling to it, a sense of automatic pilot taking over. They're putting together serviceable stories--they're informative, sure, but nothing shocking, nothing surprising. The situation just doesn't call for it; there's no poetry in power rates, after all.
Option one: Don't give up hope. (This is also known as the There Are No Small Stories, Only Small Reporters school of thought.) With the appropriate attention, a little imagination and maybe the help of an editor, reporters can make their city council dispatches meaningful and snappy.
"An editor can work with a reporter to improve a story that may be just a straight recounting of news events. It can be made at the very least to connect to the human side of the story," Tapscott points out.
Option two: Rethink why the reporters are there in the first place. (Editors, listen up.) That's the take of Jon Talton, business editor of the Charlotte Observer. Talton talks about getting the most "eyeballs" on the page with the zeal of a preacher getting parishioners in the pews on Sunday. He talks about weaning his beat reporters from inside-baseball stories and letting them loose on the stories that matter.
"We still have our forces deployed in a 1940s system," Talton says. "The average reader cares very little about most city council business, most school board business."
That might be news to most metro editors, but Talton's point is well taken. Time and time again one hears, "Well, we have to be the paper of record," which, of course, is true for nearly every paper, since newspaper competition is nonexistent in most markets. But isn't there a way papers can do that differently, giving readers what they indeed need to know in the quickest way possible? Bag those 12-inch retreads. Think Wall Street Journal news digest--there's plenty of room elsewhere on the page for interesting, inventive storytelling.
"We should be bringing meaning to all coverage," Talton says. "Too often where we fail is we don't bring genuine meaning to the stories.... We think in terms of, 'I've done beat checks today.' "
SO HOW DO YOU instill meaning in a day? The simple answer is that sometimes you don't. Some stories need more than a nut graph, however well-crafted, to have a sense of usefulness and gravity. For those, editors have to have enough foresight to give reporters the time to, well, report. Which brings us to planning. Which brings us back to Cindy Gorley at the Journal and Constitution, and her revamp of the weekly meeting.
There were some rocky steps at first. Sometimes the room would fall silent, with no one bringing anything to the table. "OK, we don't have anything to talk about today. Let's do it again tomorrow," Gorley would tell her troops.
"I can remember when I knew I was starting to get successful was when the Sunday deputy metro editor said, 'I've been in meetings that were probably a little bit more fun, but I can't tell you that I've ever walked out with a package plan for Sunday's paper.'
"You get so caught up in getting the paper out every day. We're definitely coming up with more and different story ideas," Gorley says, citing efforts to detail the lack of regulations after an E. coli outbreak at Atlanta-area pools and overcrowding in Fulton County, Georgia jails---meaty stories that can hold from day to day if great breaking news intervenes. "That's like having money in the bank.... I wanted us to not start from scratch. I don't want us running car wreck photos or weather photos. I want everything there to have a reason for being on the page."
Head east to Gainesville, Florida, and you'll find a planning system built around "centerpieces," a system that's become increasingly common. At the Gainesville Sun, new Metro Editor Matt Reed has brought what he calls a features planning mind-set--have a topical lead package ready to go every day for a couple of weeks and the wherewithal to rip it up if need be--to the metro world he's headed since May.
"I go around, usually on Friday, to pump people for centerpiece ideas for the next couple of weeks so we can get ahead of the news, and then I see what holes I have left," says Reed, a former assistant features editor. "Usually I have some ideas for stories and I hand those out."
Indeed, the centerpiece is one of the biggest nods to getting the interesting story out there at least twice in the paper every day. But it's a matter of semantics as to how much of a "centerpiece" it truly is. All too often it can be a dumping ground for the predictable news feature of the day--this time of year, kids in spooky costumes and the turkey dinner for the homeless. That, says Reed, was a problem in Gainesville when he first arrived.
"Because our centerpieces depend so much on good photography and graphics--I think our photographers are going to hate me for saying this--I think we relied too much on, 'Hey, we got good photos of a kid in the park,' or a plane crash, or somebody was out and saw somebody driving in a lake bed. We're starting to push for something more for a centerpiece," Reed says. He cites as an example the paper's efforts to do something different with high school graduation this past spring. Reporters found graduates from area public schools and detailed their plans.
"We did a nice photo illustration and a graphic. It was very USA Today--a graduation cap turned over a little bit askew with a graphic bar of information kind of superimposed on that. Then we had smaller pics of the students and their stories with the text, so when it all got put together, it looked pretty good."
Reed inherited a system put in place about two years ago in tandem with a redesign. The idea was to package the substantive stories in a way that readers would notice, says Managing Editor Jacki Levine.
"I was watching a video on a focus group and the people were saying this particular paper hadn't covered this issue--and the paper had broken the particular story they talked about," Levine recalls. "Sometimes, unless you present things in a way that brings them in, you may not get readers' attention."
FOR OTHER EDITORS, just getting a centerpiece that has something to do with local readers can be quite an achievement.
The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, California, puts out nine zoned editions every day. Consider the lineup facing Metro Editor Laura Wingard as she flips through the budgets for all those sections: "In Riverside the centerpiece art was built off a tip that they got about an incredibly large wasps' nest--and by large I mean it's 3 feet high and 4 feet wide and 1 1/2 feet thick. In San Bernardino County...the centerpiece art has to do with a high school that's going to be sending six cheerleaders to the Sydney Olympics. Our Marino Valley edition has a local centerpiece about their animal shelter and talking to the folks about having to destroy animals, the hardest part of their job." It continues. In Corona, a fatal traffic accident. In the desert edition, a big new electronic sign greeting motorists.
Starting to sound familiar? Did you make it through that whole list? It does seem a far cry from Talton's anthemic gotta-get-eyeballs challenge. But for Riverside, this is what sells papers, Wingard says. "We believe that local news is our franchise. That's why we do it. We know that people in Temecula don't have the same interests as Rialto. In Temecula, on the northern border of San Diego County, they're going to root for the Padres in baseball and the Chargers. People are going to care more about San Diego than what goes on here. Rialto is closer to L.A. County--they don't shop at the same places as somebody in Temecula; they're not going to the same concert venues.... We recognize that we're so spread out as a region that we're all shopping, eating, working, playing in different areas. And you have to serve those readers."
That's true, as far as council and zoning matters go. But don't we think that, generally, people like a good yarn? Isn't that what all the fuss is about? If that wasps' nest piece was written by, let's say, the New York Times' Rick Bragg, everybody would read it, because the wasps would stand for nature and how we resent its encroachment on civilization. It would be different than your typical wasps' nest story, you see, the one that starts out, "Call it the big buzz."
And when different works, it's wonderful. It renews reporters' and editors' ability to show up at the paper every day. It's getting people to buy into different that can be trouble.
" 'How can we make the paper interesting?' is a question that editors ask a lot, but in many ways they aren't following up on that," says Karen Brown Dunlap, a faculty dean at the Poynter Institute. "In some ways it's as though they ask the question and then revert...to a mold. In some ways the ones who are hamstrung are reporters. They try something different--a word, a paragraph, a different story, and the response is, 'Oh, that's not what we do.' "
Dunlap, who has addressed this issue in seminars, says two things need to happen in order for papers to loosen up. And neither is easy.
First, she says, "It's the willingness to take a risk...a small thing, a different type of interview, a different type of beat.
"The second part is the other extreme, the matter of thinking through our coverage and really figuring out the things that are wrong. I don't say this criticizing newsrooms severely--it takes a lot to do something different. Most organizations are not willing to take a risk. They're not willing to applaud the effort. If it fails a little bit, there's a much greater inclination to say, 'What the hell was that?!', the cynical remarks, the critical remarks."
Of course. Almost every newspaper employee has seen some poor soul tentatively throw out an idea and have it ripped to shreds. The attempt to do something different is rarely rewarded on its own if the end result isn't a blockbuster, because folks are too busy pointing out What Went Wrong. And then reporter and editor return to their comfortable 12-inch stories (35 if they're going crazy on a weekender) and wonder why readers gloss over the pages in the morning before tossing them in the recycling pile.
The challenge, then, is to risk throwing out, even in a small way, the conventions that keep papers operating within carefully circumscribed parameters.
"We have a comfortable distance for doing stories," Dunlap says. "We have trouble in getting too close. The comfortable distance is stories about what happened. Up close would be what people think about what's going on, what's really going on here--are my children going to have a future like mine? It includes things like philosophy and religion. We have trouble getting away from that safe distance.
"We also have trouble moving back from that safe distance. What are the big-picture things? How does this relate to other things? How does it relate to a community changing over time? We just stay at the level we're comfortable with, or we start hearing, 'Is that news?' That's the statement that hinders creativity."
Being creative doesn't have to mean a paper laden with free verse. It could be something as simple as shrinking a 10-inch story to a brief with only the pertinent new information.
But it's something important, editors are now fussing, in newsrooms all across America. It will get lost in the briefs.
So put it on the metro front.
But we don't put briefs on the metro front.
The point, exactly.
WHAT ABOUT THE most valuable real estate in the newspaper--1A? If anywhere, kicking the predictability habit should happen here.
At the Washington Post, Special Reports Editor Marc Fisher is one of the people charged with making sure that happens. For a little more than a year, Fisher, along with Assistant Managing Editor/Features Mary Hadar, has sought out the stories that fall between beats, the interesting reads and the adventurous pieces that weren't appearing in the paper--and should. Fisher, an AJR contributor, can borrow reporters from the Post's various fiefdoms; sometimes he reports and writes the pieces himself. He's ferreted out front-page features from all sections and convened brainstorming sessions on topics from transportation to youth culture, bringing together reporters and editors to hatch relevant, readable stories.
"That's the subject side of it," Fisher explains. "Then we also want to get people to break out of the standard form we all use that results in the kind of predictable, run-of-the-mill feature stories. Some of them work, and some of them don't, and that's OK. We've experimented with serial form--we had a really good story that ran on four consecutive days in chapters, in nice bite-size pieces, with something of a cliffhanger at each end."
Collectively, the 35-inch chapters told the story of a group of inner-city teenagers and their attempts to reform through a program that made them do salvage work on the Anacostia River.
"I think every newsroom needs someone or some group of people who can drift from desk to desk and try to fill some of the gaps that naturally happen because of the way beats are organized, things no one is paying attention to or topics that sort of bridge two areas, stories that are sort of half sports, half business," Fisher says.
And on a broader scale, that get a bit beyond the sense of duty.
"One of the main causes of dullness of most American newspapers is a sense of obligation--'Well, we have to do that story,' " Fisher says. "When you have a structure outside of those obligations, you can have someone who argues, 'Well, this is just a great story.' "
Probably the easiest place to do that at papers smaller than the Post is the page-one meeting, in which typically department heads come and pitch their stories. Metro and, these days, business generally don't find it hard at all to get their stories on the front page. Less frequently, sports and features staffers see their bylines on 1A.
"Just yesterday, we had a sports story on A1, for the first time in probably two weeks," says Charles Bernsen, metro editor of Memphis' Commercial Appeal. "The features section might get a story out there, depending on the time of year; when we're having Memphis in May [a music and arts festival], they might even be out there once, twice a week. But--and I'm guessing now--I would say that the metro department provides three-quarters of our local [stories on] page one."
Why doesn't sports or features get out there more? "It may be routine," Bernsen muses. "A lot of our features sections are preprinted, and they have to do a lot of preplanning. Sports likes for good sports stories to go on their cover. Here [in metro] it's kind of a given that the best metro stories are going to go on page one. I think it would be good if we found a way to get [stories from other sections] out there."
Still, it's happening more often than it used to--by design, says Jon Sparks, the Commercial Appeal's arts and entertainment editor. Features reporters now sometimes work on stories targeted for Sunday's front page, such as a recent in-depth story on a counseling program for deadbeat dads.
"I think because there is a greater sense of getting a good mix out there...assuming that there isn't breaking news, on a fairly typical day there's a pretty good chance of getting our stories out there," Sparks says.
Not so everywhere, it sounds like.
"Unless it's the football coach getting fired at the University of Iowa...those are extremely rare," says Des Moines' Tapscott of page-one sports stories. "It's an interesting question--What is the bar keeping features and sports off 1A? Whether there is an openness for their stories or whether they don't try to attend the meetings, I don't know.... Maybe they have too much to do."
Planning, of course, helps. And other sections' willingness to scrap their plans and give up good stories also helps--Bernsen, for example, says somewhat ruefully, "I always know I'm starting my metro front with the fourth-best story of the day." And a simple willingness to do something different is important: "Most papers have some form of planning," Poynter's Dunlap says. "It's what you do in that planning."
What's the underlying thread of all of this? Reporters and editors can't keep doing what they've always done and expect to consistently produce a paper that everyone wants to read. It's easy to put out a good paper when the mayor quits or when the hurricane comes ashore. It's harder--but even more important--to push the boundaries and think of unusual stories and different ways to tell familiar stories.
"We want change, we want experimentation in the strongest possible way," says the Post's Fisher, all to get to the ultimate goal: "It's a way...of getting into the stories that are getting into people's lives."