February 04, 2005

Using Journalism, Not Stenography to Reconnect with Readers: A Guest Letter

When Perry Parks, a former newspaper reporter and editor who is now the adviser to the student newspaper at Michigan State University, wrote a letter to Romenesko the other day offering solutions to help reconnect daily journalism with the needs of readers, I knew I had found a kindred soul.

I emailed Perry to ask if I could republish his letter because Romenesko doesn't have permanent links on letters and Perry's thoughts on the ingrown nature of modern newspaper journalism and its disengagement from readers are well worth keeping in circulation.

Perry singles out the institutional focus of most news coverage - "they write for their institutional sources and their peers rather than for fellow citizens" - as one of the dehumanizing demons that drives readers away. He's right. Try this little test yourself: Keep a week's worth of the metro section of your local paper. At the end of the week, count the number of stories in the section. How many are about meetings, policies, political debates, regulations, courts actions or crimes? I suspect about half to two-thirds. Most will be routine reports that fail to provide context, explanation or insight into these daily grindings of government. This is not journalism. This is stenography.

Here is Perry's letter. All the bold-face emphasis is mine. Clink on the link to read the whole thing.

Perry Parks:

I'm the Michigan State University newspaper adviser to whom The Daily Northwestern's Elaine Helm refers in her letter, so perhaps I can help answer some of Valerie Gregory's questions about ways of engaging younger readers -- really all readers -- in newspaper journalism.

The question arises from the groundswell of legitimate media criticism that newspaper journalists have lost touch with their audiences -- that they write for their institutional sources and their peers rather than for fellow citizens; that they focus on inside baseball rather than public problems; that they emphasize political style and strategy rather than the substance and impact of policy proposals; that, in a desperate quest to produce what they perceive readers "want," they fail to produce what readers need to participate in democracy.

In the three years I've been an educator after leaving a daily newspaper -- The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk -- which spent the better part of the '90s pursuing creative solutions to these problems, I've been trying to help students recognize and overcome the disconnect that is modeled for them in most of the professional press. I've been encouraging students to think deeply about what DOES motivate them to read and act, and transfer some of the successful reporting and presentation methods they see in magazines or newspaper sports and entertainment sections over to news coverage.

Solutions come in two major categories, I think:

1) Attacking news with the right priorities, which include showing how reader-citizens ultimately control the direction of public affairs; focusing on common problems and possible solutions to those problems rather than name-calling and political competition; reporting and writing about the impact of public policy on readers and peers; EXPLAINING how governmental processes work rather than just writing about the Planning Commission and expecting readers to get it; and giving readers information they can act on to make a difference, rather than treating them as a passive and helpless mass.

2) Writing and presenting news with a sense of authority, personality and -- if necessary -- attitude, to attract the attention of disinterested readers. Many college and professional newspapers do a wonderful job on sports and features pages breaking down complex information, writing informally and conversationally, using design and graphics to create interest. News pages, by contrast, often remain flat, bland, institutional and cold. A potential reader can look at a news headline about city government, Congress, the United Nations or what have you and get no inkling of where he or she fits into the story, why he should care, what she could do.

In covering the elections this fall, my students at The State News made a special point of writing from young people's perspectives. They convened a panel of undergraduates to watch the presidential debates, and reported on these students' reactions. They profiled students and recent graduates who were volunteering with campaigns and get-out-the-vote groups. They repeatedly ran detailed information about how to register to vote, how to get an absentee ballot, how to contact the campaigns. On the Opinion page, they ran a daily graphic with a different goofy reason students should turn out and vote. One election day, under the headline "No excuses," they ran a giant map of campus-area voting precincts so students could find their polling places. A recent survey by MSU's Institute on Public Policy and Social Research, whose results I don't quite believe but feel heartened by anyway, concluded that about 90 percent of Michigan State students voted -- well beyond the collegiate or general population totals. Even if this number is high by 10 or 20 points, it's good news. I can't prove, but would like to think, that my students' newspaper played a role in the turnout.

In short, working journalists today need to focus their energy on doing whatever it takes to connect readers with the important news of the day. There was a thread awhile back when Wall Street Journal reporter Farnaz Fassihi's personal e-mail about Iraq traveled the Internet circuit. Many people posting to this site were saying: This is the kind of raw, authentic, emotional stuff we need to see in the paper, so readers really get what's going on. Translate that idea of more authentic, more earnest, more meaningful reporting and writing to all aspects of covering public life.

Meanwhile, today's student journalists have to be thinking about how to reinvent journalism so that meaningful reporting can be made attractive to today's young people. This is not a call for dumbing down the news, but for encouraging some of the most savvy and civically committed young people to figure out how to spread their PASSION for public affairs to other young people. I don't know how to do this -- I'm not so young anymore, and I wasn't hip when I was young. Middle-aged people aren't going to solve this problem; only young people can. That's one of the messages of my presentations to college students.

Here's a good time for a commercial: I'm writing a book about this idea of making important news interesting. I'm searching for examples of newspaper public affairs coverage that is engaging, educational, inspirational, innovative and empowering. I need examples of local, state, national, world, business and opinion reporting, writing and presentation that are breaking the mold of bland, boring coverage and inviting people to be a part of the democratic process.

If you have any examples of this kind of journalism, please send them my way, to parksp@msu.edu.

Posted by Tim Porter at February 4, 2005 08:11 AM

Mr. Parks makes it sound so simple and so right. So why don't the big bosses pay attention to this kind of advice. Don't they understand that eventually they have to attract young people with young ideas and young dollars and make them want to become regular subscribers.

Posted by: d rabin on February 4, 2005 05:00 PM

It's good to read this while I'm taking classes to manufacture police and fire reports. People tend to cling to the importance of newspapers in general (as a opposed to the importance of specific brands such as the New York Times) despite the fact that they have failed to cultivate new readers and in the process doomed themselves to irrelevance.

My press criticism class teaches us that newspapers must still pretend to be a stand alone source of information. While a collection of blogs provides a much broader perspective than a single institutional publication, newspapers are still considered important for people who enjoy the illusion that on source of information can tell them everything they need to know.

Despite these points, the main reason newspapers are doomed to failure in the 18-35 market is that they write for a much older audience and regularly denigrate the music, pastimes, and culture of younger people. There is a culture of official-ness that will kill the business if newspapers don't publish something people actually want to read.

Posted by: tros on February 9, 2005 08:59 PM
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