For professionals in the news business, a big part of our life is about stories.
A newspaper pretty much has two components -- advertising by both local businesses and individuals selling this or that, and news. Any reputable paper will always give you more news than advertising. In our world, each week’s news is a collection of stories.
There are all kinds of stories in a newspaper – stories from governmental meetings that help readers discern the performance of the public servants they elect, hard news or breaking stories involving crimes or specific happenings like floods or storms. One series of meeting stories evolved into a hard news story recently when an applicant for a private club permit received a DWI charge in the process. The coldest winter temperatures in 40 years last February and that storm’s impact on our community was a hard news story, not to mention a breaking news story, for at least two weeks when the community pretty much shut down and diesel fuel froze in the tanks of heavy road equipment.
We highlight feature stories and personality profiles and they are always among reader favorites. I’ve written profiles about retiring state Supreme Court justices, musicians, basketball fans, even people who were terminally ill. Feature stories are those with the most human elements. That’s why people enjoy them so much. One of the earliest successful cable channels was one called the Biography Channel. They had a great tagline. Everyone has a story.
Almost every media outlet has a police reporter, one person dedicated to working with local law enforcement officials. It’s kind of a specialty position, and one of several “beats” or specialty areas that a newspaper designates for its reporting staff.
There are stories that play out in a series. Our coverage of the COVID pandemic is a candidate in that category. A series is a good delivery method for stories with several angles, each of which deserves its own attention. I’ve written lots of series stories on candidates running for public office. One story in a series like that might be a personality profile. So, you can see how this is all related.
Stories told in journalistic style inform. Stories of literary or cinematic nature are designed for many reasons – to make you think, to entertain, or to appeal to some “felt need.”
Some of the greatest story moments I’ve seen appear throughout a Tom Hanks movie called Castaway. At the movie’s conclusion Hanks’ character, who’s been rescued from a five-year struggle on a remote Pacific island, finds himself back in America, literally standing at a rural highway intersection in Texas. He has no obligations, no responsibilities, and is found there making a symbolic choice about which way to go. Few scenes in movie history pull a viewer into a moment more.
I love stories. Think about them all the time. And there aren’t many kinds of stories I don’t enjoy telling.
So, what makes a good story?
From a weekly newspaper standpoint, the best stories are those that add some value to a reader’s life by informing in areas like health issues, or community trends, or government action, or new capital and retail developments. Editors will typically balance “heavy” hard news with a softer feature or personality profile. Unlike social media feeds that pretend they are news outlets, you’d be surprised how much thought community journalists put in to a balanced diet of information.
Good journalistic stories are not designed to promote some outcome, but rather to inform readers in such a way that they can make decisions about the outcome they desire, and the one that’s best for the community.
Several months ago I noticed that hundreds of county residents followed News Editor Lori Freeze’s reporting in real time as she detailed results of a school millage referendum.
It’s easy for people to criticize media outlets and call them this or that, but when issues really matter, the legitimate news sources, whether they be online, in print or broadcast, are the ones to which people turn.
Editorial pages are the exception. Editorials will express an opinion representing a newspaper’s collective voice. It may simply bring an issue to light, or it may represent a call to action. The newspaper editorial is a long-standing and great tradition that has shaped our country, its economy, and its leadership.
The column you’re reading right now has become a standard element of the Leader’s editorial page. The column’s direction is something I think about each week. It’s tone. It’s voice. It’s impact on a few people, or perhaps on many people. I chose the topic of stories for this column because I think stories are important. They are a fundamental part of being human, and provide a narrative and a context for helping us make sense of the world.
Growing up in rural America was a story-rich experience that put me on the path to becoming a storyteller.
I find it’s also true here in Stone County. It is interesting country with fascinating history and heritage.
Don’t overlook the power of story in your life. It’s a tradition that makes our local community great.
See you in next week’s newspaper.
(Steve Watkins is a reporter/columnist for the Stone County Leader. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org).