Wednesday, October 09, 2002

Thought of the day: the imaginative mandate of the media
When the Tribune launches Red Eye next month, we' ll have an idea of whether the media grasps this problem with itself: where is the innovative middle ground between trying too little to connect with audiences—the lazy thinking of the "news cycle"—and trying too hard the wrong way—the cynicism of seeing yourself as a "consumer product"? The tired old Trib wants to connect with a younger audience, and will no doubt try to do it by pandering to them, ignoring what young readers find boring and fixating on entertainment and lifestyle news.

The question that should be on writers’ minds, as they write for a startup, an established paper, or, in my odd case today, two major dailies at once, is this: What will be worth reading in two weeks? What combines the important with the interesting, instead of choosing between one or the other? What extends us beyond ourselves and to a bigger world or bigger ideas, and what falls into the wide category of predictable ideas, clich├ęd writing, constricted thinking? As James Fallows says, the media fixate on “2 percent of what’s interesting” in the world. Take a look at the current "news cycle." Weeks and months from now, tired talk of Iraq and midterm elections will seem like tripe—we'll likely have invaded Iraq and left it to be a mess of ethnic infighting, while Congressional Democrats and Republicans, as usual, will be narrowly divided and sniping at each other, and the American public, as usual, won’t give a rip which is in power because they’re so blame hard to tell apart. And yet these topics, clearly fascinating to reporters, dominate the front pages.

Journalists should ask themselves, what’s worth writing about today? What will usefully challenge readers, extend them beyond the weird bubble of the mass media’s small culture? How do you capture the important as interesting, rather than the other way around? The media has the tools and the power to be bigger and do better. As Steve Lopez says, and this is linked to my new credo at left, a newspaper should have blood pumping through it--it should feel and sound human, with well-written, poignant stories that cut to the human heart of the world. One of the oldest forms of human communication is using storytelling to convey personal and social meaning. Spare us the lame salesmanship of "news you can use."

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