Storytelling

CMN Guest Blog 1/4/10 3:20 PM

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Bradley Wilson As the coordinator for student media advising at North Carolina State University, Bradley advises the daily newspaper, the radio station, a weekly newspaper, a literary magazine, an online magazine and the yearbook. He is a frequent speaker at workshops worldwide on topics ranging from the ethics of digital photography to publications design. He is the editor of the publications for the national Journalism Education Association and active in local and regional associations to improve the quality of journalism education. He has received the Pioneer Award from the National Scholastic Press Association, the Medal of Merit from the Journalism Education Association, the Star of Texas from the Association of Texas Photography Instructors and the Trailblazer Award from the Texas Association of Journalism Educators. In 2006, JEA awarded Wilson its highest honor, the Carl Towley Award.

By Bradley Wilson
Coordinator, Student Media Advising
North Carolina State University
bradleywilson08@gmail.com

The Washington Times is going to go out of business. Indeed, with its last round of staff cuts right at the end of the year, the paper sealed its fate.

Founded in 1982, the Times describes itself as a “full-service, general interest daily newspaper” that has “gained a reputation for hard-hitting investigate reporting.” Others such as Scott McLemee (in a 1998 Salon magazine article), said, the Times was “a conservative newspaper that pretty much printed Reagan administration press releases under a reporter's byline.” And, undoubtedly, the paper served some sort of competitive niche in the D.C. area, scooping other regional media outlets from time to time, and has been, as Dante Chinni wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review, a springboard for young reporters to jobs at The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Washington Post.

The paper, founded by the Unification Church, is now doomed, even if it wasn’t before, because it can no longer provide unique content for its readers. With only two staff photographers and a handful of reporters left, the paper will rely on wire service content, content that most viewers can get online or from any of a variety of other sources.

Providing unique content, not regurgitated wire service content, is what will keep media, particularly college media, alive.

What will doom the regional papers such as the Washington Times, and other papers that  are in financial trouble such as the Christian Science Monitor, which has abandoned its print edition already, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Detroit News, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Miami Herald and the Philadelphia Daily News, is lack of an audience. Most large daily (and now largely unsuccessful) newspapers have tried to be all things to all people.

The Raleigh News & Observer still has a World & Nation section. Readers in Raleigh do not turn to their local newspaper to get national and international news. Serving one of the most literate populations in America, the paper’s readers go online or watch television. They’re not going to be satisfied with the limited coverage the paper can give or its lack of timeliness. Maybe provide a few national and international news briefs and link to full stories online. Maybe find how those national stories will impact the local community and use an abbreviated version of the national story as a sidebar. Tell those stories about the people in the local community and how their lives have been changed.

Readers will turn to their community paper for coverage of the governor’s potentially inappropriate use of a corporate jet funded by taxpayer dollars, or for a behind-the-scenes look at why a former governor apparently put pressure on the chancellor of a local university to hire his wife, or why state troopers have been engaging in inappropriate activity while on duty. They can’t get that information anywhere else but in the local media. The Times certainly isn’t going to report on those events that hit a local community hard, but hardly have national ramifications.

When well-reserached and timely, those stories are extremely compelling. Indeed, in recent months solid reporting by local newspaper staff members have forced the resignations of numerous state officials who allegedly engaged in inappropriate behavior. Without that reporting, often involving numerous time-consuming open records requests, no one would have known what was going on.

While reporting on a defined audience, such as a college campus, is critical to the future of the mass media, reporters also need to remember to tell stories, whether those stories are in words, photos or video. Readers love a good story.

I was reading a story written by a friend of mine, a high-school media adviser at a school outside Dallas. In her article, Lori Oglesbee wrote about how journalists do not have to be the finest, most gifted 4.0 valedictorians at a school, but they do have to have heart. “They have to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. They write about people, not issues. They paint pictures with powerful images from the camera and through the choice of words.”

She’s right. Readers do love stories, stories full of images, as she says, that burn in our memories.

Indeed, stories are not dead. They never will be. Whether they’re viewed on an iPhone, the new Google phone or a new Apple tablet or some other yet unimagined technology, readers will still want a good story about things in their lives.

But to really excel, the media will do even more than that. They’ll take the local issues and personalize them. They’ll find the football coach who was offered a $450,000 bonus for winning a  national title and find out what he’ll do with the money. They’ll find the college student doing her student teaching, struggling to provide Crayons for the students in her classroom, more than half of which are on the free-and-reduced lunch program. And the reporter will compare and contrast that football coach with that student teacher who will probably make $23,000/year after earning a four-year degree. It’ll take that teacher 20 years to earn what the coach will earn after one successful game.

Sure, issues are cold. But issues affect people. Reporting on those people will always make for good stories.
I feel for those individuals, those people, who lost their jobs in Washington on the last day of the year. They found out at a staff meeting when they were all given envelopes telling them whether they would get to keep their jobs or not. I feel even more for the few readers the paper has left, an undefined, nebulous group of old-time Republicans who won’t be able to keep the paper alive much longer because it lost site of its mission and its audience.

College media can do better.

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