Hey, journalists, enough with the fancy leads already!
Reporters used to strive for accuracy, brevity, and clarity. Now it's suspsense, setting, and back story.
New Orleans — It's the old bait-and-switch, compliments of tabloid culture: A newspaper headline grabs my eye, and I start to read the front-page story beneath it. But instead of immediately learning the pertinent facts, I'm treated to something like this: The demure woman in a beige pantsuit gazes from glazed eyes at what used to be her life's dream.
"It's the cruel irony of it," she repeats in a wistful tone. "Just before my husband died tragically, he predicted this."
Such language is served up widely now that news writers have abandoned customary tenets in favor of a go-as-you-please fiction style. Declining subscriptions and America's obsession with electronic diversions have forced a determined campaign in the print media to "connect" with their readers. That spells hard times for the old-school reporter, that all-seeing fly on the wall whose motto was "shoot it up the middle."
For much of their sometimes seedy history, American journalists have been perceived as tenacious seekers of the facts. Quill drivers, newshawks, ink slingers – reporters have been called many names, most of them not very complimentary. But at least they usually respected the difference between news and pulp fiction.
Now the fly on the wall is an "author" in a camel's-hair sport jacket – one who obviously takes sides with his characters and wraps up a few facts in a tortilla of melodramatic technique. Maybe this paltry piffle helps newspaper circulation, but it's sad to see good reporting replaced by "flash fiction."
I miss the crisp writing and quick, logical flow of information. Accuracy, brevity, and clarity used to be the bywords of a newspaper reporter. Now it's suspense, setting, and back story. Once called the "cynic tribe," many reporters these days are sharing a soap-opera love feast with Oprah.
Over the decades, I've watched journalists expropriate the traditional conventions of the novelist and screenwriter, and my main question is why? The cross between jackal and wolf at least produced the domestic dog; the cross between news and fiction has produced only paperback journalism with its "gas-blue skies" and "pink and gold sunsets." Not much of an accomplishment when you consider that most novels today could be plotted out on the back of an envelope with room left over for a grocery list.
Journalists used to envision their typical readers as busy commuters on trains or subways, one hand holding a strap, the other a folded newspaper. The snappy lead (who, what, when, where, and sometimes why or how) was essential so that key elements of the story could be grasped quickly if reading was interrupted. Likewise, the "inverted pyramid" ensured that less essential information was always toward the end of the article.
But in the 1960s, journalist and author Tom Wolfe tipped over the inverted pyramid forever when his article about NASCAR driver Junior Johnson introduced a nuisance called New Journalism. Instead of recognizable words, his piece opened with a prolonged roar of engines: "Vroom! Vroom!" and so forth. Given heady stuff like that, it's no wonder that today's journalists have replaced informative leads with "clever" opening hooks.
It can't be easy to reverse such cultural trends, but I hope the journalism profession will do a collective gut check and decide that not all forward motion equals genuine progress. The more rigid formality of old-school values was service oriented and reader friendly without pandering.
Journalists would help many of their readers immensely if they would recognize, as they once did, the clear distinction between hard news (the timely, front-section information) and feature material, the less timely reporting that's more creatively structured.
It might also help if journalists would take sociologist George Herbert Meade's advice more closely to heart and "take the role of the other" – in this case "the other" being their readers. For most of us, the newspaper is mainly a source of well-organized information. Such elements as creative leads and suspense are simply impediments to learning the facts quickly. It's frustrating when the headline makes a promise that the metaphor-laced story is slow to keep.
I fell under the spell of New Journalism when I was a 20-year-old reporter in the Marines. I began turning in copy with "alternative" leads and distracting details. Soon I was standing tall before "the man," whose pithy advice was actually an order: "Ames, just get in, tell 'em what you gotta tell 'em, then get the hell out."
Not as eloquent as journalism icons I.F. Stone or Walter Cronkite, but it's still great advice for reporters when they feel the creative urge tempting them.
• John Edward Ames writes novels and short stories. He worked as reporter in the Marine Corps, writing for base newspapers, including a stint as a stringer for Pacific Stars and Stripes.