The home of former Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss burned down last week in a place called Pahrump in the Nevada desert. No one was hurt. Is that something you needed or wanted to know?
I read it in the San Francisco Chronicle. It irritates me that I lack the memory to retain new pieces of info, like the names of my students or where I parked my car, but for some reason I still recognize Heidi Fleiss and know where in nowhere you can find Pahrump.
Knowing and caring are two different things. I know and don't care. After I read it I felt the Chron cheated me out of valuable minutes of my time.
Publishers emphasize that a story should be worth the cost of the expensive paper it is printed on. But stories should also be worth the reader's time. That's the value of the things a reader might do instead: Maybe Facebook friends or play on the Wii. Don't lowball that value.
So why does a non-local news story end up in front of your nose? An endless number of stories come to our local papers over the "wire." Sometimes I think that the people who select wire stories are blind and lack screen readers. Otherwise why pick a story about a has-been madam in the Mojave for NorCal readers?
In beginning reporting we teach students that events become news when they fit one of a short list of categories: Proximity, prominence, importance, timeliness, novelty, conflict or emotional impact. Or: When everyone talks about it you can't ignore it.
More broadly, news stories should do one of three things: Inform, entertain or connect a community together. The Fleiss story did none of that. It fit the prominence category barely. If it were Lady Gaga's house, well that's a different story. She could sneeze and make news. But Fleiss? To get my attention, she needs to sneeze in my face during a flu pandemic.
Meanwhile, all the talk where I was last week -- Mendocino County -- was of a tanker that rolled over south of Highway 20, turning the 101 into a clogged one-way lane that kept Willitsites from their turkey pickups and half of Humboldt County from their Bay Area destinations.
Back home, the Times-Standard to its credit skipped the Fleiss story and briefed the Willits tanker. But it ran a bylined AP story twice as long about how body scans caused few problems in airports across the state. Tell me, which story has more conflict? People trapped in their cars on Highway 101 as the time for turkey trussing ticks away or people in LAX smiling because the X-rays and pat-downs didn't feel like the sexual assault the press had promo-ed.
In a recent blog post, online news guru Robert Niles suggested that newspapers should focus on five things: food, faith, education, labor and business. I think he should have added transportation, health and safety.
The problem with many local newspapers is that they place too much importance on the timeliness and novelty categories. It is called a newspaper isn't it? But therein lies our current disconnect with newspapers. Because the stuff that affects our lives most isn't new -- the daily headaches of our jobs or lack of jobs, our commute to those jobs, our struggles to stay healthy and keep our families healthy and safe. Life tends to the tedious. To be relevant, stories need to touch on that tedium, but reporters and editors say: Booorring! So they focus on the new. During Thanksgiving, when most people are stuck in turkey traffic those news people have to stretch all the way to Pahrump for the new and novel.
Niles focused on what we call universals: The problems most readers have in common. He argues that most of us spend from 12-20 years in the educational system and then send our kids through it. Most people have jobs. Businesses affect our lives in terms of both our paycheck and in what we can buy and use. We all need and want to eat. For many people faith is our first language and the community within our community. I think in more simple terms: Money is the great universal. We all need to eat, to have a roof over our heads, and have some enjoyment in life.
A news story hits reader gold when it combines multiple categories. Consider a story that made headlines in papers across the state and nation: The U.S. Senate was set to vote on the Food Safety Modernization Act on Monday, which would make the biggest changes to our food inspection process in 70 years. It could be a big boost to small farmers, who were exempted from the onerous inspection requirements by a recent amendment to the bill after they argued that growers that supply to local areas don't have the problems we've seen from large food processors. And it could help keep E. coli out of our escarole. The Times-Standard didn't have this story even though: 1) It is about food; 2) It will affect our local farmers; and 3) is related to our health. And in a more traditionally journalistic sense, it is about the new, the important and is a story full of conflict: Big nasty corporate farms versus Farmer Eddie.
Newsworthiness is a tough call. In October I went with three students to New York and we sat through the morning meeting of the editorial board of the Associated Press. That's where they compose their list of top headlines from among all the stories in the world. The stories they bandied about included riots in Europe over raising the retirement age, the continuing mortgage crisis (nothing new on that), Mexican police burning 140 tons of marijuana (nice video!) and the world's longest cat, which garnered the most hits on Yahoo! News (the AP's top customer).
You might have missed the cat story sitting in traffic somewhere, trying to get your kid to school and make it to work on time. Or maybe you were just Facebooking your friends about how well you did on your Wii. If you think the time you spent reading this column wasn't worth it, calculate the opportunity cost and send me a bill. I'll donate the amount to Food for People. We all need to eat.
Marcy Burstiner is an associate professor of journalism and mass technology at Humboldt State. You can donate directly to Food for People at: http://www.foodforpeople.org/Donate.html