News next: a journalism teacher's diary

July 7, 2010

Hardy perennials: how do you write about what everybody knows?

It’s 103 degrees out as I write this. So every newspaper website and tv station is running a story about the weather. We’ve all read these stories, again and again and again. The heat wave; the cold snap; the hurricane/tornado/wind storm. The run-up to the election. Graduation. They’re stories that have to be written, but that can be so tedious to read, and to write. And they’re stories you know the competition is writing, too. So how do you set yourself apart from the pack?

The Times did it with an amusing piece that took off from a cliche–“hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk.” Was it really?

The Boston Globe’s media columnist surveyed his domain and offered a tip sheet on keeping the heat wave story from wilting.

Some good examples of how to cover an election without writing as though it was a horse race come from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Student reporters fanned out all over the city to collect man-on-the street reports from far-flung neighborhoods, writing about and videotaping first-time voters, immigrants, young people, people in nursing homes, even political meet-ups in bars. A far cry from either policy wonk analysis or poll-driven winners-and-losers reporting.

Perhaps the most famous example of making an ordinary story extraordinary is Jimmy Breslin’s account of the funeral of John F. Kennedy. Knowing that every news outlet in the world would be covering the obsequies, Breslin turned his back on the body lying in state, closed his ears to the dignitaries’ eulogies, ignored the grieving family, and instead wrote about Clifton Pollard, the man who dug Kennedy’s grave.

February 16, 2010

A neighborhood institution

Filed under: None — Bernard L. Stein @ 3:25 pm
Tags: ,

If Manny Fernandez was in my class, he’d get an A+ on his first assignment, a profile of an institution that plays an important role in the neighborhood.

Here’s the nut graf:

Everybody knows the public pay phone is dying, but nobody inclined to watch this one would believe it. It sits across the street from Queens Criminal Court, on a patch of sidewalk facing Fast & Fresh Supermarket Deli & Grocery. In the age of the iPhone and the BlackBerry, in a city where cellphones are cheaper and more plentiful than toasters, the pay phone outside Fast & Fresh is outdated, outnumbered, outperformed.

The story made page 1 of The Times on Feb. 13, not because it conveys news of earth-shaking importance but because it’s inventive and well-written. It’s a surprise–a “Hey, Maude” story.

Once he got the idea, the rest was simple, but not easy. Fernandez just stood outside the phone, observed its use and interviewed callers; but he stayed at the phone for hours at a time over a period of several days.

That same issue offered two other, more conventional, stories about neighborhood institutions–about a coffee shop in Bed-Stuy and two florists in Queens. Both keep the reader engaged by writing about conflict. The coffee shop was on the verge of closing; the florists were suing over unfair competition.

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