Earlier this month as my Poynter colleagues were celebrating and deconstructing the fabulous St. Petersburg Times “Girl in the Window” feature on a feral child, an academic friend of mine advanced the argument that such stories can be part of the answer to saving newspapers.
In fact, Michele Weldon of Northwestern’s Medill school has published a book about it, “Everyman News.” She begins with a statistical demonstration that stories with humanistic, soft leads that break away from official sources have gained a new prominence in the front page mix — even at such traditional papers as The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Weldon, a feature writer turned feature teacher, specifically disavows any special expertise on the business side. She is kind enough to quote me in the book, early on, opining that “the well-crafted story” can be one of the distinctive offerings of newspapers, and thus a business asset against intense competition.
Books being books, I said that 18 months ago before newspaper finances went from shaky to terrible. Admittedly, even the most polished gem of a story is not going to pry classified ads away from Craigslist or get a busted condo developer back into the paper.
But I will stick by the thought. Weldon has documented the concurrent decision of many editors to make the featurized lead — the story in which one person represents many — a standard part of the front page mix. I would go a step further saying those stories are essential to keep the print audience coming back for more and paying a bigger share of what it takes to produce that work.
Weldon sets her argument against the wider hunger for story “arcs” and “journeys” a la “American Idol.” And as I write, we are deep into that quadrennial orgy of weepy back stories, aka NBC’s Olympics telecast.
I wish Weldon had explored a bit more deeply what differentiates the best from the formulaic, but she is not numb to that concern. “There is a caveat to attach to the discussion of the widespread use of narrative in newspapers, ” she writes, “imitation narrative journalism isn’t the same as the real thing. … You can’t place gold leaf on drywall and expect it to look like the Sistine Chapel.”
Which circles back to “The Girl in the Window,” a model newspaper feature (enhanced by online audio/video and an outpouring of reader comment). It doesn’t happen unless you have talent like writer Lane DeGregory and photographer Melissa Lyttle on staff. And give them the space — in column inches and time on the project — to do their best work.
In his essay on the story, Roy Peter Clark, poses the question of whether shrinking newsrooms will invest the resources needed for this sort of work. If they are smart, they will. Roy and I both are fond of the golfing maxim, “Deceleration is death” (on delicate chip shots). Taking the foot off the gas in creating compelling stories could equally be the death of newspapers, if other maladies don’t get them first.