Sunday, July 19, 2009

Leave Storytelling to Professionals

Today's rant is inspired by a talented photojournalist, Sarah Coward. She has assembled a knock-your-socks-off web portfolio. One page is “comparisons gallery” at It's a gentle, highly educational “visual rant against the practice of forcing newspaper reporters ... out of their element and into the world of visual storytelling.”

In a dozen or so photos that unfold in sequence, Coward shows a general assignment reporter’s snapshot of a news event and then compares how the same subject might be seen through the lens of a visual storyteller. The mini-lesson includes all the bread and butter of small-town journalism – awards, ribbon cuttings, accident scenes, openings, school days. It is is well worth the site-visit to see how far we amateurs have to go to master storytelling with pictures.

Coward’s compare-and-contrast essay was on OWW’s mind this morning when Charlotte Sun’s weekly tab, “Feeling Fit,” slithered from the Sunday sleeve. The big story is an interview with a hospital CEO. It's a puff piece assembled by a “correspondent,” which roughly translates as "untrained." And, knowing Sun Coast Media Group, the title surely indicates an amateur willing to work free for the by-line. Well, readers got exactly what the Sun paid for.

That is, the freelancer who wrote "Hospital CEO talks of healthcare" fails to tell a story. Nothing explains how today is different than yesterday. The "correspondent" gives no hint that the man interviewed is unusual or outstanding (he loves family and job, to paraphrase the several paragraphs devoted to this point). No element engages the emotions, illuminates a national debate, or explains a local condition.

As if that weren't (little) enough, the article is replete with weak grammar, punctuation and spelling. The Sun's paid copy editors must be using their stylebooks and dictionaries as coffee-mug coasters because they clearly aren't using them as references.

OK, that's the rant. For gory details and line-by-line support of the thesis, peek below the fold.

It may be safe to say that grass doesn’t grow under Joseph Clancy’s feet.
We admire the caution (“may”) but wonder why a professional writer would submit a story whose second clause in a trite cliché. Sorry: is there any other kind?
As the new Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Peace River Regional Medical Center, [...]
Style. Where’s the copy desk? We don’t capitalize “pope” without attaching a man’s name to the title; how does an administrator at the region’s smallest hospital rate what the head of the one true church can’t have?
[...] he spends less time behind a desk and more time visiting each department — getting to know the more than 900 employees that are under his purview — using his personable and unassuming nature to get to know them — taking the pulse of the heart of the hospital that is, he said, its people.
Trite, again, and almost laughable imagery – taking the pulse, people are the heart, etc. If the man really said this, then put it in quotes so OWW won’t blame the writer. And if the writer is putting pretty words in his mouth, the writer missed a second opportunity (the first was the lede) to start telling a story that readers might care about. Of course a new administrator meets and greets staff. If he’s affable and unassuming, a real story teller wouldn’t tell us, a real story teller would show us.
To Clancy, his position is more than a job. For him, it is personal — it is, as he said, “coming home,” to help provide the best medical care possible to the community he and his family hold dear.
Delete the unnecessary comma; more triteness: “more than a job.” Don’t tell us (again), show us. Start chapter 2 in the story. By this time, readers should know why it's important or worthwhile to read this story.
And along with loving his job as CEO, he loves his role as husband and dad and said he tries his best to balance family and career. “They are my pride and joy. I love showing them off,” he said, pulling out pictures of his two children, Carson, 3, and Sophia, 4, of whom he and wife, Tobi, adopted from Guatemala three years ago.
Edit and repair: “of whom.” Professionals (writers, real copy editors) can handle this; amateur “correspondents” need a backstop – or at least a grammar review. The sad part is, any native speaker can hear something's off, and the professional would take time to “look it up,” get a quick grammar review, or simply recast the sentence to avoid the appearance of illiteracy.
“Obviously, this is a very time-consuming job,” he said of his new position. “But, every minute I am not here at work, I spend with them.”
Clarifying “job” as “new position” helps the reader understand the difficult concept here? More importantly, there’s no hint yet of story – just a man who loves his job and his family.
“This is my third stint in Charlotte County,” he said, adding he started his career in medical administration with Health Management Associates, who not only owns Peace River Regional, but Charlotte Regional Medical Center as well.
Not “who.” Reduce wordiness: “not only ... but” phrases create ornate verbosity that says “lookie, I’m a writer.” Meanwhile, readers continue their hunt for a story.
Clancy, who took over the position in May, said that he was handed a facility that is ready to move forward with the goal of improving and expanding services and taking on new challenges. “David [McCormack, former CEO] left me in a good situation in the sense that volume wise, we are doing very well in terms of overall admissions and overall surgeries.”
OK, I believe he actually said this; it’s pure business-ese. But why? The pablum is an invitation for a professional to do some homework and inject some substance: number of beds, dollar volume, procedures performed, years in operation -- recap of the “Standard & Poor's” stuff. And why not a note about the institution’s rank and place in the hospital food chain – a highly competitive market in our area? That's what a professional might write about. So, still no story, not even a note about where poor old Dave went.
The challenges Clancy faces, he said, are industry-wide with a health-care system that may soon undergo the scalpel. “Right now, it is wait and see — to see which plan they move forward with,” he said. “The overall premise of trying to provide insurance for the uninsured and the underinsured in this country — we are all in agreement as healthcare providers that it is needed.”
Wow; this is a hot topic and yet the correspondent is willing to submit as jouranlism a piece that lets the speaker get away with this gobbledygook. We’d overlook the unanchored pronoun, nonexistent copy editing, and unsubstantiated generalizations if we had a story to chew on. What’s the effect of un- and under-insured on this hospital’s inner workings, staff, and ability to serve? If you bring up the subject, you're required to add to the discussion.
In the mean time, Clancy is focusing on the now, working to continue to improve patient satisfaction. “We pride ourselves on providing quality, compassionate care,” he said. “Even if you excel, there is always room for improvement — improving the patient experience,” he said. “That is going to remain one of our big focuses.”
Mean time as two words is quite a different thing than “meantime.” The man’s quotes are more pap and puff. Readers have long since passed the half-way mark in this story -- and still no story. Not one word has been written to tell readers why the world is different today than it was yesterday, why this man is unusual or interesting, why the heart strings might feel a tug, or why this small-town hospital even exists. We haven’t a clue.
Another focus, he said, is moving the county's cardiac care facility from Charlotte Regional Medical Center in Punta Gorda to Peace River Regional. The $16.5 million project will add a two-story, state-of-the-art cardiac tower that is planned to be constructed above the emergency room. “The other option is to renovate the old emergency room.”
Quotes without attribution and missing hypens drive real copy editors up the wall. Correspondents, not so much. Note that it's not "the county's cardiac care facility," it's HMA's.
The new cardiac area will be private inpatient rooms only, something Clancy said is becoming the industry standard.
OK, here’s a bit of hidden news that makes us willing to ignore the awful copy editing: big construction looms. Months of jockeying patients and services are ahead. (Hospital construction and renovations are a masterwork of puzzle pieces as patient care takes place side by side with construction workers and cranes). The correspondent missed a potentially very interesting story, or at least a hook for her unfiltered adulation and mindless quotes. Does the new CEO have a special expertise in hospital construction? What does the planned disruption mean for people in the community? Is moving cardiac services part of a larger HMA plan? You bet it is -- but the correspondent doesn't seem to know the community well enough to think of this.
"I think moving the program from Punta Gorda — a town of 17 thousand, to Port Charlotte that has more than 90 thousand people just makes sense,” he said.
We’ll continue to ignore the awful copy editing (which a professional writer would take care of herself before handing in her story). But, more importantly, readers need a reason to believe that moving the cardiac service “just makes sense.” Locals know Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda are adjacent municipalities and the two hospitals are six miles apart. A journalist would find out why instead of abandoning this assertion to survive on its own.
Construction on the project, he said, should start in the spring of 2010. It is an exciting time, Clancy said, for healthcare in Charlotte County, despite the struggling economy and a healthcare system in flux. “The last year has been tough on this industry, and we are facing many of the same struggles other facilities across the county face,” he said.
More pap and puff. We’re clearly getting to the end of the correspondent’s mini-tape recording.
“Charlotte County will have all the services needed to provide quality healthcare to its residents,” he said, adding he and his family are glad to be home to be a part of it.
Home from where, exactly? Did he go to high school here? And BTW, what's his college and degree? And, really, haven't we heard "quality healthcare" somewhere before? If this were a photo, it would be called a "grip and grin."
While his career has allowed him the opportunity work at various facilities in the country, it is Charlotte County he ultimately longed to return. “Every move in my career, there has always been the goal to come back here,” he said.
We return defective products to the store. We don’t return counties.
"This is the community where I met my wife. This is the community we lived in where my son was born and where we brought our daughter home from Guatemala, and is here I want my children to grow up. This is where we call home.”
So sweet: a nice family man who wanted to come home to where his heart is -- and he did. But, some 30 sentences down the pike, readers are still looking for the story. The moral of this long tale: Assign news features and story telling -- written or visual -- to professionals.

1 comment:

  1. While showing that the writer can't tell a story, you missed that the picture she took doesn't either. That pic says flabby guy in a bad-fitting suit -- badge to drive the truck, maybe. The camera angle looks right up the poor sap's nose. Most unflattering picture she could have taken.