Wednesday, January 2, 2008

You're a Reporter, Not the Publisher's Steno

DeSoto Sun’s news editor compiles her year-end review of “quirky events,” culled from her staff’s 2007 news articles. Here’s a sampling of “quirky:”
An SUV collides with another car and the driver is seriously hurt. A sheriff’s deputy is beaten by a man at a traffic stop and then dragged when his arm is caught in the door of the departing truck. A semi-trailer crashes into a power pole, blacking out busy U.S. 17's traffic lights.

The editor continues her year-end recap with “news of the weird:” The health clinic gives drive-through flu shots, a star high school student is arrested for felony mischief, an extortionist victimizes a family, a young man who shot himself with a high-powered bow and arrow remains tragically impaired, and finally, her quirkiest weird of all: skeleton remains and fetal remains became objects of (separate) investigations.

The lesson for local editors is a real journalist doesn't go into the story searching for preconceived ideas of what the elements ought to add up to. This abomination almost certainly emerged when the family shareholders-on-high issued a memo: "Write a wrap up, and keep it light! Let readers see the quirky side of your beat."

Sure, reporters and editors have a macabre sense of humor and a tender spot in their hearts for the off beat; it goes with the territory. But what evokes a newsroom giggle and a copydesk head scratch about the nature of humanity is likely to fall flat on main street -- and in the main sheet.

What would have worked, in OWW's humble opinion, is spiking the memo and looking thoughtfully at the clip file. The wise reporter would ask what these tidbits actually add up to. What do the facts -- not management -- say? And, the wise reporter knows it's not a lame attempt to discredit a tired cliche ("nothing ever happens here"), which management's vision has forced on this story.

And finally, the lesson in one line: the columnist's expressly described "happier note" turns out to be the 2007 discovery of a rare, smalltooth sawfish -- with its saw-like snout cut off. One last time: News, even quirky news, is not what management says, but what the facts say. And if it's not quirky, don't force it. It makes you look as clueless as the bean counters.

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