Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Missed Opportunities

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Missed Opportunities

Article excerpt

A newspaper's first obligation is a full and fair accounting of the day's news. Most of the stories we write take forms that serve that purpose. The lead summarizes the story's most important elements. The balance of the story elaborates, dealing out additional facts in more or less descending order of importance.

That's exactly as it should be . . . most of the time.

But we have other obligations too. A newspaper links readers and the rest of humanity, helping to make life meaningful by exploring the nuances of the human condition.

When it does that, news writing serves the same purpose as literature. The great novels earned their status as classics because they used sophisticated story forms to reveal central truths about the human experience.

The key word here is "story." journalists use the word promiscuously, hanging it on just about any group of related facts. But literary types use the word in a much narrower sense. They reserve it for narratives that meet certain requirements, and they recognize true storytelling for the rare skill it is.

The nature of stories and storytelling is a book-length topic. But all we really need to say here is that a good story will display these minimum characteristics: 1) an interesting central character who (2) faces a challenge or is caught up in a conflict and (3) whose situation changes as (4) action takes place in (5) an engaging setting.

Any situation that displays most of those elements contains the potential for a true story, an account that takes a radically different approach from the typical inverted-pyramid news report.

You can't always exploit such story opportunities. Maybe the reporter who turns up a subject with great story elements already is involved in a big project. Maybe the story's news angle is so urgent that you have to get a basic news story into print pronto. That's the nature of the business.

But while you may have to pass up some great stories because of deadlines or staffing, you should never pass them up because you don't recognize them for what they are. Unfortunately, that kind of ignorance probably accounts for more missed opportunities than we would like to admit.

My own paper is typical. A few winters back, for example, a 72-year-old local woman froze to death when her furnace ran out of heating oil. The woman, as it turned out, had plenty of money, but she could be crotchety. She sometimes yelled at neighborhood kids, harassed retailers and refused to open the door for housekeepers. …

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