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Goodbye to two old friends

by Doug Fisher

No. 120 for September 2013

I'd like to take a moment to mark the passing of two old journalism friends.

These aren't people, but publications of note from two noteworthy figures in journalism and journalism education: Writer-L from two-time Pulitzer winner Jon Franklin and Update from journalism professor Melvin Mencher.

In these tumultuous times, both were places to which one could repair for a moment of reflection, a knowing insight and, most of all, a path of discovery to new and wondrous corners of this myriad-faceted thing we call journalism.

Writer-L (www.writerl.com) began in 1994, a subscription mail list that Franklin operated with his wife, Lynn, as a gathering place for those who love the craft of narrative journalism. I was mostly a lurker, enamored with the advice from Walt Harrington, Jack Hart, Roy Peter Clark, David Hayes, Wendy Call, Mark Kramer, Tam Hallman, Tom French, Michelle Hiskey – so many that for $35 a year it was dollar for dollar some of the best journalism education you could get.

In his April farewell, Franklin reflected that long-form journalism was once seen as "a proven way to get and hold readers" and to "help newspapers and magazines transfer their operations to the net."

But, he lamented: "Most of the first class storytellers have left the business. The entry-level reporters who replaced them were doing good to produce a coherent news story. …

"Young journalists now are rarely exposed to first-rate storytelling. They don't see long-form storytelling as a way to make their bones or even as the reward for hard work."

In many ways, however, Writer-L showed us that narrative is not about length but impact, and impact (and engagement) are increasingly the currency of the digital age. In fact, the contributors often showed us that impactful narrative can be short.

Organizations like the Readership Institute (www.readership.org) had been pounding the drum for years for "experience" papers instead of the "tepid" fare being served up then – and too often even more so today.

But Harrington and Hart, in their praise for Writer-L, saw what Hart called "a wide-open future for narrative nonfiction."

While the form has faltered in recession-wracked newspapers, online aggregators are giving it new life, there is increasing interest on college campuses and even some newspaper groups are starting to ask for instruction again, Hart wrote.

"So the seeds that Jon and Lynn helped plant are springing up all over the place."

Writer-L emphasized the roots of journalistic had work – wide sourcing, meticulous observation and critical evaluation. Mencher, whose reporting textbook is a classic, embodied that journalistic conscience.

The now professor emeritus at Columbia University, distributed his Update to anyone who wanted a regular reminder that journalism doesn't happen in a classroom – or a newsroom – but on the street. "GOYA/KOD (Get Off Your Ass/Knock on Doors) or, not to offend, CTS (Climb the Stairs)," he preached.

"Journalism is the story of how we live now, the human consequences of public policies – the struggle of the single mother to afford nutritious meals for her children, the ruined lives of uranium miners, and the family living in crime-infested public housing," Mencher wrote in June's Journalism & Mass Communication Educator.

He constantly questioned whether journalism education was replacing those values with technology – "Have we become the tools of our tools?" – and whether schools were admitting too many unqualified students.

And he rejected the idea of journalists as blank slates. 'Reporting is not a passive enterprise," Mencher wrote. "It begins with the journalist’s tentative story ideas, hypotheses that guide the reporter’s questions and observations. The reporting reality confirms or rebuts the reporter’s assumptions. If rebutted, other hypotheses are rapidly put in play."

Every edition of Update was not just a reminder of these things but a compendium of story ideas and other ways to put them into practice. I wish it had been read in as many newsrooms as faculty offices.

Ultimately, Mencher said, he concluded that "my scoldings, reminders, and splenetics went unheard by the 1,900 I preached to. To them, I was calling out from the distant, and irrelevant, past. So I announced the demise of Update."

It, and Writer-L, will be missed at a time they are sorely needed.

Word Watch:
Bored vs. Bore: A story I read recently about a fatal car-train crash said the vehicle was on the tracks as the train "bored down" on it. The correct word is bore, which is the past tense of bear (to bear down). Bored is the past tense of bore, to make a hole in something. Homographs are just another reason English is hard, but journalists should know better.


Doug Fisher, a former AP news editor, teaches journalism at the University of South Carolina and can be reached at dfisher@sc.edu or 803-777-3315.

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