The Death of the Story

My column, “End of an Admirable Fallacy: Local News,” caused consternation among some journalists because it appeared to gore a sacred cow known as local news. But it wasn’t local news I was goring.

I like local news; I’m from a family of local newspaper publishers. I spent years reporting local news. (You haven’t lived until you’ve covered a four-hour long meeting of the Zoning Board of Appeals, something that seems to go on for a lifetime). So let me pet the sacred cow of local news.

Yet what I was trying to smash is the false idol of the local news story. It’s time to declare that the story format isn’t sacred, but is just one of several useful things that journalists can craft out of the clay of news and information. Moreover, it’s no longer the most useful of those things.

Everyone likes a good story, but more often than not people just want the basic information.

It’s good for journalists to report about routine meetings of the town council, write a nice human interest story about some local person, or craft a review of a local restaurant. But if the people in the community can’t immediately find out which restaurants in town serves Chinese food (nonetheless what those restaurants’ daily specials are), what the live score at the local secondary school’s football game is, who’s playing tonight at each of the local bars or pubs, and what local roads are scheduled to be closed for repairs starting tomorrow, then the journalists’ stories about a routine town council meeting or some local person have been distractions from providing your people with more useful and quotidian information.

There are exceptions to this: Journalists should report investigative stories, urgent and bulletin stories, and provide the really important stories. However, only about 20 to 25 percent of stories in the average daily or weekly newspaper or news magazine actually fit those categories.

In his blog, University of South Carolina Professor Doug Fisher, a former news broadcaster and Associated Press editor, picks up on my column and runs it closer to the goal line:

    “J-education (as is journalism in general) is much too tied to ‘writing.’ In that it sends the wrong message — that it’s all about writing, when it isn’t. What distinguishes journalism is that it’s all about gathering and hunting and finding out — and then wanting to tell people about it. Yet, what is the first real ‘skill’ class most students get? Writing. And so we send that signal that it’s all about writing…

    “Interestingly enough, it seems that more people examining and commenting on journalism, its business models, etc., are coming roundabout to the same conclusion. Michael Shapiro, for instance, in his comprehensive look at the free/paid debate so far for “Columbia Journalism Review” suggests that what we might be able to sell are those turn-of-the-screw, process details we have largely eschewed in journalism in the past three decades in favor of ‘story’ (only most of those attempts still were not the kind of ‘story’ Crosbie refers to).”

No those attempts aren’t, but they are on the right track.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the foundation for any news organization in this millennium should be live, interactive databases of utilitarian information; providing the community with comprehensive “information” about what’s going on, what’s for sale, what’s forecast, etc., rather than necessarily providing the community with a selection of “stories” about those things. Provide the information first, then the stories.

This applies not only to local news organizations but to regional and national ones to. Not just to newspapers, news magazines, and news broadcasters, but to trade journal and topical magazines, too. The community you serve might be geographic or simply people interested in a trade or topic.

As for the story as format, I may seem radical declaring it to be a false idol, but not compared to Kevin Marsh, editor of the BBC College of Journalism, the journalism training site for the world’s largest news organization. It last month issued a document called “The Future of Journalism. Marsh wrote:

    “The web has unbundled the bundle we used to sell audiences as a paper or a bulletin; it’s erased the distinction we journalists used to make between ‘news’ — what we said it was — and information, stuff, the whole of the rest of the world.

    “The web is enabling our former audiences to come to their news in their ways at their times. Our old image of gripping them with our ‘stories’ is no more.

    “The story is dead.”

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