Thursday, June 3, 2010

Tell; Don't Ask

In Journalism 101 classes across the nation, usually in the weeks between early and mid-October, tyro newsers and budding editors learn this bit of reader-friendly advice: No Question Heds.

Here are some jottings from an old notebook of mine, circa ... nevermind.

-- Headlines don't ask questions; that's the reporter's job.

-- Questions, by definition, don't inform.

-- Questions are incapable of reporting an event or development succinctly and factually.

-- Questions encourage readers to turn the page; most readers will think they know the answer to "stoopid questions" and move on to more informative fare.

My late-life corollaries:

Question heads tell readers that the weekly Arcadian's editors do not know that reading stories is part of their job descriptions. Question heads tell readers that the editors find the challenge to assemble an inviting, succinct, clear-eyed, fair-minded report of the column's content is excessive, mispent effort.

Question heads tell readers that the weekly tab's editors prefer the easy way to assemble a simulacrum of a newspaper: word-process whatever vague question had prompted the writer, blow it up to 36 points, break and center on three lines. The only newspaper-like goal is filling that annoying white space over the story.

Back to the reading part of the job. Here's what the question asker missed by not freeing up about 60 seconds to read her own newspaper:

Sentence 2: The May 25 vote was controversial ...
Sentence 3: ... activitists came in numbers,* warning of the dangers ....
Sentence 10: ... commissioners did the right thing .... even though they were faced with opposition and negative public opinion.
Sentence 11: ... the controversy is not over ...
Sentence 12: ... [Future developments] will surely spark a heated debate and cause much controversy ...
Next to last sentence: ... environmental issues and other concerns will have to be debated and resolved ...

Dear Editor: In answer to your question, the phosphate controversy is real; the newspaper? Probably not.

*The rest of us came in shirts and jeans.