Amidst the bustle of the busy holiday season, some newspaper readers found themselves unexpectedly going out of their way to keep up with a story.
Chris Karn cut it out of her paper every day. Robert Schultz woke up at 5 a.m. to retrieve his paper. Madelaine Sottile tapped into the Internet to read it while out of town.
The story was “Ain’t Done Yet,” a 29-chapter serial fiction novel that follows the adventures of a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based investigative reporter on the trail of a doomsday cult with cataclysmic plans for the turn of the century.
Written by Roy Peter Clark, The Poynter Institute’s senior scholar, the series made its first debut in spring of 1999, appearing in 10 New York Times Regional Group newspapers. It returned for a second run later in the year with the New York Times Syndicate, this time appearing in 15 newspapers, with some papers timing it so that the last installment would appear on New Year’s Eve.
“We were looking for compelling content that fit into the millennial theme, and thought a fictional series — in the tradition of the old newspaper serials — would be a fun way to engage and attract readers,” said Diane McFarlin, publisher of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
McFarlin and several colleagues developed the idea as part of the New York Times Regional Group’s Celebrate 2000 project. Clark, with two nonfiction serial narratives to his credit, was McFarlin’s first choice because, “I wanted someone known for good writing and who would grasp the concept of a newspaper serial,” she said.
The novel reminded Erma Jean Caulkett of stories she read as a child in a book in which her great grandmother pasted daily installments that appeared in newspapers during the mid 1800s.
“It was a chapter a day, just like Mr. Clark’s stories,” said the 76-year-old retired real estate broker, who followed Clark’s novel in her daily Stuart/Port St. Lucie (Fla.) News. “Back then, reading the newspaper was a leisurely thing and it was a source of information as well as entertainment for many.”
A journalistic tradition that can be traced back to the days of Dickens, serial fiction has become steadily less prevalent in newspapers during the latter half of the 20th century. Clark attributes this decline to television, radio, and other electronic media displacing newspapers as a primary source for information and entertainment.
However, the turn of the century may prove to be a pivotal point for newspapers, Clark speculates. “What we’ve seen in the last year is a lot of reporting and a lot of stories uncharacteristic of newspapers because they look to the past for their stories and not the present or the future,” he said of the many millennium retrospective features published in 1999. “It may turn out that those are not just one-shot moments in which we celebrate this special birthday.”
So should readers like Erma Jean Caulkett expect to see more serial fiction novels in their papers? Maybe.
Although many readers enjoyed the change from the old, the novel received mixed reviews from newsroom staffers, with some journalists questioning the juxtaposition of fiction and non-fiction.
“It was probably not the best use of our space,” said Jerry Manley, local news editor for The Nashville Tennessean. Manley said his greatest objection was the novel’s placement in the B section. “It bothered me to be running fiction stories in a section that is supposed to be a news section.”
There have been two other occasions where The Tennessean has published fiction serials in the “B” section, Manley said, but both were children’s stories that appeared in the School News & Classroom, a special segment that runs on Mondays.
“I didn’t have as much of a problem with the children’s stories because the classroom section is targeted toward getting children interested in reading the paper,” he said. “Some of the area teachers also referred to it in their classrooms.”
Clark said he recognizes that fiction — similar to the comics or the horoscope — is not central to the mission of a newspaper. “If there is a situation where the newshole is too small for the news that is being written about, then of course, don’t run the fiction novel,” he said. “But there’s nothing inherently wrong with the coexistence of nonfiction and fiction that is labeled as such.”
The goal of “Ain’t Done Yet,” McFarlin said, was to generate greater interest in the newspapers and to increase circulation and readership.
“Anything that causes your readers to pick up the newspaper is a good thing,” she said.
“It was successful in my market. Although our circulation numbers couldn’t provide verification, anecdotal evidence suggested that readership of the newspaper and our website was enhanced.”
Eight newspapers responded for this story. Of the reader response reported by those papers, most were positive. The volume of reader feedback varied greatly from one paper to the next, but most editors said they received at least a handful of e-mails or phone calls about the novel.
“It seemed to pique people’s interest,” said Chris Juzwik, features editor for the Wisconsin State Journal. Juzwik describes the community his paper serves as “very literary” and said he received three calls from readers who suggested ideas for other fictional series. “I’d be interested in doing it again, but the story would have to be very different,” he said.
Chris Beringer, a Seattle Post-Intelligencer assistant managing editor, said a fiction series would have to be shorter both in length and duration for her to consider publishing another one. “The chapters were not a six-minute read as promised,” she said. “It seemed like it was a long time to keep people sustained.”
In hindsight, McFarlin said she would advise editors considering the approach of publishing fiction to try and localize the story as much as possible. “We found that the farther the readers resided from St. Petersburg, the less interest they had in ‘Ain’t Done Yet,’ ” she said. “It didn’t resonate as much in, say, Alabama or California.”