It's Coming | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

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It's Coming

The birds know it's coming. About two dozen of them were burrowing in the ground in front of my house before my four-year-old daughter knocked on the window and scattered on them. You can see it now. The winds are starting, the clouds are there, the clockwise rotation already visible in the sky, though extremely slow at this early moment.

It's gonna be a big mess, but probably not much more than that. Flooding is the biggest concern. Hopefully I personally won't need any more than the 9.5 gallons I have stored for my generator. If we lose power, the fam will probably sleep in the garage, where there's a wall-unit A/C. Good luck to everybody in the path.

Anyway, to get your mind off the storm, I've got another special report from John DeGroot, the playwright, "recovering journalist," former writing coach at the Sun-Sentinel, and all-around bon vivant. He recently dropped me off a t-shirt he'd made with the Sun-Sentinel logo and the words: "We're Journalism Lite -- And Usually Right." Hey, the man has some time on his hands. Here's his latest report from the wilderness, where he takes Earl Maucker to task:

Storytelling: Sun-Sentinel Style

The Sun-Sentinel's Editor Earl Maucker is one of the most artfully non-controversial and downright pleasant newsroom managers that I've known in my four decades as a journalism.

Truth be told, I'm sure anyone who ever worked with or for Earl would agree he embodies the go-along-to-get-along style of management.

In short and in my book, Earl Maucker is a really nice guy.

Which is why, I'm too often embarrassed by Earl's sublime ability to hoist himself on his own petard in his attempts to tell-it-like-is with the Sun-Sentinel's brand of journalism.

For example: Earl's column today on storytelling was a real doozey.

Earl begins by noting, "there are a variety of ways a writer can craft a story" — after which he does a journeyman's job of explaining how "the traditional way to write a story is the inverted pyramid style, as it's known in newspaper parlance."

Trouble is, the use of an "inverted pyramid" is not a story; It's an arbitrary arrangement of facts based on the writer (and editor's) understanding of their importance.

For the record, most of today's newspapers still use the inverted pyramid style of writing in reporting "hard news" events — which explains why is most accounts of "breaking news" in your morning newspaper begin by repeating the same basic facts you heard on television or read on the internet the night before.

As an aside, the inverted pyramid style of news coverage dates back more than 150 years and the invention of the telegraph and the Morse Code. Idea was, that in covering the aftermath of Gettysburg, a newspaper war correspondent arranged his facts in such a way that --- in the event the telegraph wires were cut — his reader would at least know the (1) North had won, (2) the South was fleeing the battlefield disastrous retreat and (3) untold thousands had been killed, or wounded on both sides.

Today, most editors, continue to argue an inverted pyramid arrangement of "hard news" still serves the busy and time-pressed reader; an interesting argument, given how — from the dynamics of storytelling — the factual structure of inverted pyramid newspaper "story" is deliberately designed to grow increasingly irrelevant (and boring) to the average reader.

So, what IS a "story."

Or, more to the point, what should a "story" DO to and for the reader.

During the desperate dregs of my years as a newspaper writing coach, I stole the following from the novelist John Updike as a model of what's needed to make a story work for a reader:

"I want stories to startle and engage me within the first few sentences, and in their middle to widen or deepen my knowledge of human activity, and to end by giving a me a sensation of completed statement."

To which, upon hearing this definition of "story," one Sun-Sentinel copy editor snorted, "John Updike doesn't know shit about journalism. He never, worked for a newspaper."

Sadly, the righteous copy editor was and is a poster child of most newspaper folk who've come to believe there's a difference between journalism and storytelling.

Or, as Earl Maucker writes in his Sunday Op Ed column: "We are a newspaper, not a literary magazine."

Not a bad sound bite of justification.

However, reality suggests Earl's logic is based more on Faith than Fact.

How so?

Basically, as Earl notes in his column, print journalism today is engaged in a daily cosmic battle with:

Time - The average American is, as Earl puts it, too busy and "time-starved" to digest humankind's daily comic-tragedy.

Space - Given the vast diversity and complexity of modern events, the Sisyphean task of most journalists is a daily struggle to cram ten pounds of news into a five-pound bag.


Then how come the average American household today somehow has time enough to spend more than seven hours a day watching television — but only a few time-starved minutes to race through the news of the idea?

Which begs a vexing question: Could it be that most of the dwindling "hard" news space is — well — boring and/or irrelevant and/or stuff we already saw on television?

Oh yes.

There's also the Dark Hole of "hard" news content which the veteran journalist Bill Moyers spoke of when he noted how: "Journalists are paid to explain things they don't understand."

Now, in fairness to the average walk-around modern journalists, it's damn near impossible to understand and the meaning of stem cell research, pulling Terry's plug, global terrorism, Genesis versus Darwin, child pornography on the internet, fiction-based crime stats at the Broward Sheriff's Office and so on.

But at the same time, much of the above could be reported in a way that's at the very least interesting — if not startling, arresting and relevant.

Which is how and why most of us lusted after each and every storied detail of Women Eaten by Alligators, or the latest surreal chapter of a Baby Beauty Queen's Mystery Murder — as opposed to Sunday's Sun-Sentinel Help Team's latest snoozer: Going on Vacation With Your Dog. But I snidely digress.

Bottom Line is:

When it comes to storytelling, the writing should know the difference betweens what's interesting — and what's not.

To illustrate my point, I can think of no better dismal and literal metaphor of the Sun-Sentinel's sense of storytelling that the dominant article on front page of Sunday's Local section.


The Illustration: A huge color photo of a smiling woman hugging a child. (Reading the small-type caption under the photo, we discover she is a mother without any arms or legs "on the waiting list for in-home care that would allow her to lead a more independent life."

The Story: Ah, yes. The "story." Or, unfortunately, the lack of its telling.

How so?

Well, first, we must read on to an inside page to meet the quadruple amputee mother who serves as the story's main character. But getting to the tragic heroine's plight, we must wade through the following material presented in classic Newspaperese:

"Thousands of severely disabled people are not getting the care they need because a state income assistance program that could help them maintain their independence hasn't been adequately funded.

"More than 3,100 people have been on a waiting list since 2004, a figure that outraged some legislatures who say they were never told about the list and didn't know the program was in trouble."

And so on until we're asked to turn the page to get to the mother without any arms or legs, or what Earl called "the human angle" in his column on storytelling today.

Or, when it comes to the dynamics of storytelling, the "reader-focused" Sun-Sentinel expects it audience to wade through the same old Government- Fucks-Up-Again story before they're nailed by the Good Stuff buried inside.

Hence, in the manner of Edna Buchanan, a truly great storyteller who once graced the Miami Herald with her powerful and arresting prose, the Sun-Sentinel might better have begun its so-called story by reporting :

"Florida doesn't have enough money to help a South Florida mother of two get through her day without arms and legs.

'I can't feed myself. I can't dress myself. I can't go to the bathroom by myself,' says Lisa Strong from her wheelchair in Davie. 'All I want to do is take care of my children.'

The cause of her plight — and more than 3,000 other disabled Floridians?

'At times, the governor is required to make difficult choices,' explains Kristy Campbell, deputy press secretary for Governor Jeb Bush."

But to further illustrate the point of our dismal metaphor, consider the following cruel numbers impacting the ever-present problem of newspaper space:

100 column inches — The amount of space the Sun-Sentinel devoted to Sunday's Disability Woe "package"

75 column inches — The amount of space the "package" devoted to headlines, photos and graphic devices.

25 column inches — The actual space given to telling the story.

No matter.

As Earl Maucker concludes in his Sunday Op Ed column on the storytelling at the Sun-Sentinel:

"Graceful writing and good storytelling with always be in style, but in today's time-starved world there has to be room also for quick hits and basic facts without prose.

"At the Sun-Sentinel we do our best to bring you both."


Along with 40 inches of news space in Sunday's Sun-Sentinel A-Section with a Help Team "story" that begins:

"Two weeks before our recent family vacation to Sanibel island, my wife asked: 'Should we bring the dog?'

"My mind raced.... What do I pack for the dog? Will there be anything for the dog to do on the island?"