When does a story have legs? That's the question the media industry grapples with these days when it reports or fails to cover the "Occupy" demonstrations. The problem is that we, in the news industry, gave ourselves a bad name. We called ourselves the news industry. That seems to promise the public that we will report whatever is new. When something is old, it is not new. So "old news" is a term for what we believe readers don't want to read.
So how do you cover a story about a bunch of people who park themselves in a public place for more than a month and don't cause trouble? After the first day, how is it news? It is a Catch-22. Unless news publications keep reporting a story, it won't gain the traction needed to warrant continuous coverage.
This is a big problem, because what is new is not necessarily relevant to our lives. And just because something has been happening a while, doesn't mean it isn't important. From time to time the news media gloms onto a story and stays stuck to it for weeks and sometimes years. Within these stories, little happens from one day to the next, but news organizations find ways to keep the stories hot.
In the late 1970s for example, revolutionaries held 52 people in Iran for 444 days. During that time, not much happened on a daily basis. But our appetite for a daily feed of non-news was so great that ABC News launched Nightline, hosted by Ted Kopple, to satisfy the demand.
In 1999, another story captivated the nation. When fishermen found 5-year-old Elian Gonzalez in an inner tube off the Florida coast it set off an international conflict that held our attention for six months.
Between 2001 and 2005 we waited to see if the medical and court systems would allow Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman in a vegetative coma, to die. Story after story told us when doctors removed her feeding tube, when they put it back, when the lawyers filed brief after brief. We heard from those keeping a vigil outside the hospital and from pundit after pundit. But at the heart of the story was a woman in a coma. It isn't the most action-packed of stories. It wasn't what was new that fascinated us, it was the emotional conflict in the unfolding story. It was simply inherently interesting. So the press found lots of ways to keep the story alive as long as Terri Schiavo lived.
The press found it more difficult to find daily news out of some other long-term stories that I found just as compelling.
In 1985, Palestinian terrorists seized Associated Press reporter Terry Anderson and held him captive until 1991. In those seven years, news updates appeared infrequently, yet I ate up whatever little information the stories gave me.
In 1997, Julia Hill, known as Julia "Butterfly," climbed up a 1,500-year-old redwood tree and refused to come down for two years. Such sheer stubbornness in the face of chainsaws and burly men awed me. But the newspapers didn't show the same excitement. How much action took place up that redwood tree, once the timber men threw up their hands and left her alone? A story like that is more a one-woman show than an action movie, and the news industry knows that it is the action movies that pack in the audience.
Until our convict neighbors up in Pelican Bay ended their three-week hunger strike, there was hardly a newspaper across the state that covered it. No one seemed to care.
We know that the news media obsesses over many stories as it did the Iranian hostage crisis or Terri Schiavo or Elian Gonzalez. Arrests of celebrities, for instance. We saw daily coverage for months when Robert Downey, Jr. landed in jail on drug charges or when Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan were each caught driving drunk. Then there are the media obsessions that last years: The murders of Natalie Holloway, Nicole Brown Simpson, Jon Benet Ramsey and Laci Peterson to name just a few.
I teach my journalism students that the secret to power writing is active verbs. I came, I saw, I conquered. That's news. But it can be a trap. What unfolds can be just as real and just as fascinating. Isn't that what all these reality shows teach us? The mundane can be so compelling. How many people got caught up watching the daily inanity of the Osbournes? How much really happens on Big Brother? Yet there are people who can't get enough of it.
Celebrities are always news. Scandal is news. Violence is news. Mayhem is news, and anything that happens on a reality TV show is news. Peaceful protests at Humboldt State or Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco are yawners. But tear-gassed protesters outside Oakland City Hall? That's worth stories for days on end.
So here's my tips for the Occupy folks. Scope and scale aren't gettin' you much. So what if Occupy protests spring up in thousands of cities? So what if some of these protests attract thousands of people and donations in the hundreds of thousands of dollars?
Occupy Humboldters, heed my advice: You need to turn up the heat. I'm not saying you should abandon your non-violent stance. I'm all about non-violence. But the story would get more traction with a few busted heads. If the police here won't comply, well, a celebrity might help. Maybe we can get Charlie Sheen to come by and scream at you all. Or maybe we can turn the whole thing into a reality show. Protesting With The Stars. Oh wait. They're part of the 1 percent.
Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. She is definitely old news.