Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Final Exam Today

Final exam in basic reporting, aka the baby step, the first hole pecked in the shell, the first stirring in the womb, whatever you want to call it as long as the description evokes the tentative, the unfocused, the growing conviction that signing up for this class was a bad move and that it's long past time to run for the bushes when the old man's back is turned.

Well, I don't blame them. Print reporting is certainly horse and buggy, and I hammer on them as if they were horseshoes. My pedagogical focus in basic reporting has changed over the years. We do the old favorites -- speech, press conference, meeting, face-to-face single-source interview -- but I have become increasingly fanatical about teaching the summary lead until they get it right.

News is "made," subjective, in no way inevitable or universal. Oh we know that. We are Media Studies sophisticates.

Well then please make it.

Decide which facts matter and who is worth listening to and cram all that into the first hundred words because that's really your only chance to get them reading, keep them sinking down into the intricacy, the texture, the dark and the cold, to keep them on the trail of that the great heavy mass of that gritty ball of facts you have laboriously gathered and so patiently and exhaustively wish to unroll.

And if quite rightly you find more than one point of view persuasive, spread those points of view out as a vendor in a bazaar might spread out his wares on the ground.

But somehow capture this complexity in the first hundred words and then go roaring and rolling on to your heart's content. It's called the hourglass structure, a small triangle balanced on its tip on a much larger triangle. You have a nice summary on top and then go back to the beginning of time and bring the story forward. I think this approach is useful, and underlines the theories of news they get elsewhere. I teach without shame and without mercy.


Today is final exam. I make my point about concision in the written intro to the exam and again in my spontaneous exhortation.


Half the class takes the great heap of information I have given them to write about and does two quick hundred-word stories and off they go. And go I let them. That was not quite the assignment. But for those who managed to write two tight cogent summary leads that could serve as a complete story in this day of contracting news hole -- or a first-page tease to cause you to click through on the Internet to a story as long as infinity -- more power to them.

It's a B, my friend. It's a B if you keep it tight, simple and focused.

Which is so much harder than it looks and thus the world curves away.


Anonymous said...

I'd be interested to learn more than the little bit I know about how on-line journalism has changed that first para. My recent experience at Slate confirmed my sense that the hard lede is now harder than Zeppelin on steroids. Maybe this is A Good Thing. But then again, maybe not.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

To my surprise, Net journalism seems to require as many or more brief clear (oversimplified?) as old print journalism. You'd think you could loaf your way into the story since every story could be a multi-K thumbsucker. But giving people more to read means people have to be wiser in what they commit themselves to reading. As much as print -- possibly more than print -- you need to make clear immediately what the majority of stories are about. The problem is not the space given the writer but the time granted by the reader.

Anonymous said...

Oh I just assumed that on-line was snappier. To the point of violence, one sometimes feels.