Thursday, 19 May 2005
Out of the mouths
The headline on the centerpiece of this morning's front page, "Fast learners, little Skywalkers are," reminded of a really great thing that happened to me yesterday.
I had gone down to the newsroom to consult with The State's main Web juju man, Dave Roberts, about this site. Being informed that Dave was out, I was making my way back through the newsroom when I noticed a knot of elementary schoolers crowded around a reporter's desk. A tour. I had already passed when I heard my name. Turning back, I was informed that these children were regular readers of my work and would like to talk to me. I looked around, and estimated (accurately, as it turned out) that these were second-graders. Fans of mine? Didn't seem likely, but I was game.
The teacher standing next to me looked down at one little girl sitting cross-legged at his feet, and urged her to ask me the question she had just been asking. After a brief look of "Why did you call on me" exasperation, she said (and all quotes herein are approximations; I had no notebook with me): "How come sometimes in the paper there's this big story about a dog show, with pictures and lots of words, and on the same day something tragic and important happens, but all there is about it is a paragraph?"
Well, it was about all I could do not to bend down and hug her. I am so weary of hearing how in order to survive, newspapers have to lure young readers by dumbing-down their content, stressing entertainment and frivolous features and such at the expense of "boring" hard news.
I just knew there were kids out there like these, and here they were. I was ready to talk to these kids all day. I launched into an explanation about how the flow of news works, explaining that you might have planned to send a reporter and photographer to the dog show for days or even weeks, and on that particular day you had the space set aside for the dog show, and you executed your plan. But then, the "tragic" news develops maybe an hour before you go to press, and the sources are busy and hard to reach, and all you can get of it is a paragraph of information, so you go with that -- and if the story is big enough, you follow through the next day. I likened it to having a week for a homework assignment, so you really do that up right, but when the teacher gives you another task to do five minutes before the dismissal bell, you do what you can.
Then Mr. O'Keefe asks why something like a big coal mine disaster would only get short shrift in the paper, as opposed to ongoing coverage of the Michael Jackson trial. After making it clear that I've been out of the business of making such judgments for 11 years (since I moved to editorial), so I can't really speak to recent developments, I tried to answer based on my 20 years in newsrooms before that. I explained the Journalism 101 elements of news play -- that you decide based on the factors of interest, importance, proximity and immediacy (I tried to explain those terms in words the kids would understand, but I have a feeling it was unnecessary), and every story has those elements in different proportions. While noting that you won't catch me following the Michael Jackson trial, plenty of other people have a high interest in it. Same with dog shows; I pointed out that lots of folks call newspapers to say, "Why do you splash all that 'negative news' over the front page, when you could be covering my nice dog show?" Different strokes for different folks.
A coal-mine disaster is important -- in West Virginia. In South Carolina, we don't have a lot of coal miners. Nor are South Carolinians in a position to DO much about a coal mine disaster. I contrasted this with the recent boiler explosion that killed a man just down the street from this office. That had proximity, immediacy andinterest, and serious importance for South Carolina, since it was the only state in the union that doesn't to safety inspections of boilers. So we played that story for all it was worth.
Anyway, as I'm going on, this little towheaded guy has his hand up and waving around, to the point that Mr. O'Keefe signals him to give it a rest, and he gives up. When Mr. O'Keefe says, "Well, Mr. Warthen is busy, and we've kept him long enough," I say, "No wait. This young man has a question. What is it, buddy?"
So he says, "What inspired you (those three words are verbatim, as you don't forget it when a second-grader starts a question with "What inspired you...") to write that letter to the editor (meaning a column) about that man where you said he was 'not a gentleman -- translation: he's a jerk?"
Well, the grownups all laughed, and someone asked if I was glad I had taken one more question. But I loved it, and just answered him straight: "I was inspired to write that by the fact that the man in question -- Rep. Altman -- IS a jerk."
"You see," I said, addressing all the boys and girls, "lots of other people had written lots of things about Mr. Altman and what he had said and done, but nobody had pointed out the rather obvious fact that basically, he's a big, fat jerk. So I thought I should do that."
These kids were great. They're students at the Center for Inquiry, Richland District 2's magnet school. I told them they were all going to be great newspaper readers one day, and then corrected myself: "You already ARE wonderful newspaper readers."
Normally, I don't connect this well with kids this age who are not my own. I find it awkward trying to get on their level. These little Einsteins saved me the trouble by getting down on MY level. It made my day. The only thing lacking was that I wish it had all been on videotape, so I could show it to my good friend Mike Albo, our circulation director. It would have been killer evidence for my side in our ongoing debate about how newspapers should go about appealing to readers, particularly young ones. Sure, these kids were exceptional. But they gave me hope.
Read more: http://blogs.thestate.com/bradwarthensblog/2005/05/out_of_the_mout.html#ixzz1L2MYnNFS