What makes a good story?
I got asked that question twice last weekend, in different forms and in different forums. The first was Friday evening on KPAY’s Drive at 5 radio show; the second was Saturday morning at Chico State’s Journalism Day.
It’s a good question. It taps into the core beliefs of each individual editor, and it distills the essence of the media organization he or she spearheads.
My answer: a story that tells you something you didn’t know about a subject that hits close to home. Or, to put it another way: an interesting story that matters.
The Iraq War matters. Accountability matters, whether we’re talking 9/11 intelligence, veterans’ health care or—as in the case of this week’s Cover Story, “Abuse of authority”—school administration. Local arts, eateries, business and development matter.
Anna Nicole Smith doesn’t matter.
I know, that should seem obvious. But in light of TV news coverage the past few weeks (plus the Why not? question I also got asked), maybe it’s not so obvious after all.
I hesitate to bring up the late Vickie Lynn Hogan, because she’s more overexposed in death than in life—and that includes strip clubs and Playboy. Add one more clip to her publicity file.
ANS, as celebrity gossip sites call her, received the amount of newscast time accorded Pope John Paul II and Princess Diana. Reporters tripped over each other on the way to the morgue, then raced to find her funeral home in the Bahamas. Anchors analyzed photos of her fridge … or was it really her fridge? (Time for more analysis.) Anyone who knew her got an interview with Larry King, if not a one-hour special.
It’s one thing for E! or Entertainment Tonight to go overboard. It’s quite another when “serious” news operations do so. The Project for Excellence in Journalism says Fox News, CNN and MSNBC devoted half their airtime to ANS in the 48 hours following her death—24 hours times three, or 72 hours, to someone famous only for being famous.
Entertainment Weekly got it right. My favorite magazine devoted four paragraphs to her passing, accented with a photo and broken out in a box. EW acknowledged she was bigger than David “Disco D” Shayman but not as big as James Brown.
Overblown coverage produces a vicious circle of circular arguments: Something getting covered must really be worth covering; if it’s getting that much coverage, it must really be important; if it’s that important, people must really care about it; if people care that much about it, it must really merit more coverage!
This, of course, leads outlets to cover their own coverage, and so begins a second circle.
What makes a good story? Human drama that resonates. Voyeuristic gawking? Not worth your time, or mine. The time we have is precious—that’s the only lesson to take from the ANS saga, and you probably knew it already. Too bad that’s news to too many people in News.