Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I Have Seen the Future and It is Young

St. Augustine writing, revising, and re-writin...Image via Wikipedia

Taking a break now as I watch my intro reporting class finish its final exam. I was a feature writer back in the day, and I hated writing bloodless summary lead stories -- straight-ahead old-fashioned news writing, you might call it. Having never had a journalism course and having instead a PhD in English lit, I had neither the aptitude nor the inclination to do that kind of work. I avoided it with a passion, a devious one. It was said of me more than once that in a typical Robertson story you don't get the nut graf till after the jump, and sometimes not even then.

Sometimes never a nut graf -- but such writing, such intonation, such elaboration, such insemination, such .... That's who I was. I did it well, to my own taste anyway.

But over the years in my introductory reporting class I have increasingly emphasized the 250-word news story with a summary lead. Dare I say it? I teach what some might call the inverted pyramid. And why is that? It's not a style I liked doing, nor one I much enjoy teaching.

Well, first it emphasizes the necessity of recognizing what's news -- an arbitrary judgment sure, but necessary because inevitable, and there's nothing gained by assuming we all have the same criteria for what we need to know. Judge not that you be not judged? No. *Judge*. There is gambling in the back room. Always.

I'm saying that in a basic reporting class I want to focus on reporting, on going out and getting it, on not trying to write around your ignorance with flash and charm.

Second, the internet has not produced a wealth of 10,000 word masterpieces of literary journalism -- deep pools into which we sink, we die, we live again -- but a sheen of oily droplets covering the ground and drawing our eye by which I mean the typical web news site is cluttered with one- or two-sentence summaries designed to get us to click through to the longer story. I'm saying the art of the summary lead has become more important in this internet age. It is a useful skill. Who knew?

So know I preach the sermon which was not my own salvation. If I had been required to write quick dry news hits after I fell into magazine writing, I do not think I would have done that good a job, and I would not have had the chance to showcase my own flashy talents and would not have gotten the Chronicle job and would not have been talked about by a local writing friend to that friend's teaching friend and that teaching friend would not have known my name (and the fact I was a working journalist with a PhD) when the job at USF which I now possess came open, and that friend of my friend might not have dredged my name out of his memory as part of his deep desire to stick it to one of the deans here back in the day because that dean was much hated and had his own candidate.

And he would not have recruited me to a job I did not know existed.

What a chain of events. And the prime mover was the fact I didn't know how to write a summary lead, an incompetence that led to the most lovely compensation. Maybe? As I said, deciding what "the truth" is can be pretty arbitrary sometimes.

Anyway, I emphasize the summary lead and the 250-500 word news story, and I threaten the littles with the "100 word line of demarcation" above which I want most of the key facts (though they may reserve one for the kicker). Come to me in feature writing or arts reviewing, I tell them.

There we will feed on honeydew and drink the milk of paradise and wallow in words like a great fat pig.
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FJK said...

I trained at the New York Daily News where a good lede could convey more depth and drama than a Russian novel. Often the whole story had to be stuffed into a breathless five inches. Not much room for reflective prose, but it sure got the readers to where they needed to go.

Loved the reference to "sheen of oily droplets" of on-line writing.

Keep up the good fight. I am heartened that there are still youngsters out there who want to learn who, what, where, when, why and sometimes how.

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

Some people do have the ability to "say" the news in a way the greatest storyteller would envy. But you need an organization that insists on it, or at least tolerates it in small doses. If I had a kid with that much old-fashioned pizzazz...I'd probably fail to recognize it. That's what I tell the kids. If you're good, I *will* recognize it. And if you're great, I probably won't get it, will overlook it or even discourage it. And someday you will piss on my grave.

With my approval.