Thursday, May 26, 2011

The stories we're missing

On a recent trip to Lebanon, a friend and I got to spend time in Bourj Hammoud – a crowded, lower-class community bordering Beirut.

It’s a true melting-pot neighborhood. Armenians, Egyptians, Syrians and Kurds – many undocumented – live in concrete, high-rise apartments, above a cacophony of markets, small shops and traffic spewing diesel fumes.

About 60 people packed into a tiny storefront for Sunday-evening church. Afterwards, as journalists, we could interview anyone we wanted (with the aid of interpreters). Every person in the room, it seemed, had a compelling story. We ended up writing about:

  • A Syrian music-store owner who fled to Lebanon rather than face continued government oppression over the kinds of CDs he was selling;
  • A Lebanese man who left a lucrative business career in Abu Dhabi to come live in Bourj Hammoud and train to be a pastor;
  • And a Sudanese pastor who watched his brother be murdered for his Christian faith, and who now lives and ministers among the people who killed him.
Every person has a story, and those stories are worth telling. Good journalism schools have emphasized that maxim for generations. For all of these people, this was the first time their stories had ever been written. That’s as true in my own neighborhood as it is in a place like Bourj Hammoud. Yet, as an industry we’re missing them.

As newsrooms have shrunk, the must-cover beats – government, cops/courts and, to some extent, business – have crowded out all else. Newspapers still have features, but they’re usually confined to the Lifestyles or Entertainment pages and the reporting is necessarily shallow. Time and competing demands don’t allow for anything more.

Walt Harrington opened his wonderful 1997 textbook, “Intimate Journalism,” with this quote from historian Will Durant:

“Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing the things historians usually record; while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks.”

Newspapers today are still doing a decent job of covering the stream. We’re doing a lousy job of covering the banks. As we search our industry’s soul for areas where we can continue to excel – and that readers can’t get anywhere else – we ignore great feature writing at our peril.

Harrington wrote:

“The stories of everyday life – about the behavior, motives, feelings, faiths, attitudes, grievances, hopes, fears and accomplishments of people as they seek meaning and purpose in their lives, stories that are windows on our universal human struggle – should be at the soul of every good newspaper.”

As our industry collectively neglects these great stories, another problem arises: We are forgetting how to write them. A generation of new reporters can deliver a live story from a press conference with a series of Tweets, but has never written a compelling, 30-inch feature story.

The formula is simple. Jon Franklin outlined it in “Writing For Story”: “A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.”

Simpler yet: Characters. Conflict. Resolution. Redemption. That’s every good novel, every good TV drama, every good movie. Fellow journalists: We can do this. We need to do this.

At a Rockford coffee shop the other day, a guy named Ray struck up a conversation with me. A former master machinist in a town where those are almost extinct, he’s looking for full-time employment. He fills his days by fixing cars and computers for friends, doing odd jobs and hanging out at the coffee shop. There, he talks with staffers and customers about everything from theology to martial arts. And he surfs the web on his laptop, watching videos about ancient astronauts and intelligent life on Mars.


Shadowing someone like Ray for a day or two would produce a wonderful feature story. He is a face of the Rust Belt: a brilliant, supremely talented technician whose skills are no longer valued in the town where he’s lived his whole life. So, for now, he’s constructed a life that pays the bills, he cares about people and he’s a central character in this neighborhood. Yet, he’s the kind of guy that a passerby would dismiss without a second thought.

He’s also the kind of guy that newspapers don’t have time to write about anymore.

So, here’s my plea to reporters: Develop an eye for stories like this. Write one per month. Here’s my plea to editors: Let them. Carve time, even if it means missing a government meeting once in a while. And then devote serious space for these stories.

Reporters and editors: This will stoke creativity that you forgot you had. You’ll remember a big reason you got into this business. And your readers will remember, or discover anew, the value of a great newspaper.


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