Feature stories on major topics, in which the author begins a multi-paragraph description of a person or scene before offering a substantive consideration of the topic, have today little use in newspapers. These stories are meant to set a scene, and perhaps evoke emotions in readers who are, the author presumes, indifferent or ignorant of the substantive topic.
Reporters who are taught to write this way are indulged; reporters who are allowed to continue this way are over-indulged. For an example of this sentimental style, see Night walks, masks and navigating new spaces: Meet UW-Whitewater’s new chancellor. For examples of poor beat reporting, see The Janesville Gazette’s Sketchy Reporting on Major Topics. (In both cases: Beleckis, reporter; Schwartz, editor.)
It should be needless to say that these are not indifferent times; these are times of continent-wide controversy when emotions are already high. No one needs six paragraphs of treacly background information to be engaged in a major topic – nearly all America is now in dispute on our country’s major topics. No one needs to be awakened to action – we are, all of us, in the action. Those readers who are not yet awake to these times are either drunk or comatose – which, in fact, means they likely aren’t readers at all.
It serves our present condition to state plainly: who did what to whom?
Good straightforward beat or investigative reporting is like this: direct, concise, unambiguous, unsentimental. Good commentary – writing with a strong editorial tint – has time for pathos as a rhetorical technique. These two approaches are not the same, and should not be mixed.
If newspaper people want to write lengthy, take-ten-paragraphs-of-teary-anecdotes-to-get-to-the-point feature stories, they should become magazine writers, or build time machines to transport themselves to an era that needed an awakening. It’s not commendable poetry in motion to misunderstand one’s era; it’s more like an ill-timed limerick.
We are not in an easy time; we are awake already to a dozen controversies. Writing should be direct and succinct in its description of our circumstances.