(My apologies today - veering off the PR blog for a journey into my past as a journalist)
Perhaps one fallout of the decline in print journalism and the rise of electronic and social media is the ability to capture the drama. The rush to get news out fast via blogs, Twitter and 24-hour TV news cycles is, by this observer's opinion, leaving us with less of the emotional aspects of a story. Is speed killing the ability to tell us the complete story? Are we simply OK with tidbits?
When I began my career as a journalist, I was captivated by dramatic stories and the writers who could convey a great story. I was told by journalism teachers (like my friend Joe Saltzman and the late great Bill Farr) and some editors to always "paint a picture" so the readers could feel they were actually next to you, observing what you were seeing at the time. This was always my challenge as a writer.
As a journalist, you usual arrive to a story after it happened. If you are fortunate, you can report and collect facts as a story is unfolding before you. However, since you are usually reporting about something that you didn't directly observe, it was (is?) incumbent to probe, ask questions and collect information to write "a story."
Some of the greatest news writing occurs in catastrophes, when the human spirit is tested, when conditions are extreme. Wars provide opportunity to convey the human struggle, the drama of the moment, the extreme tests, the sadness, the glory and the pure, raw emotions. Nobody likes war. But, news stories about war are necessary because human lives are at stake, countries are anguished, leaders are questioned, and so on.
In Los Angeles these past few days, we had our own little war - the largest wildfire ever. What began as a small brush fire in the hills above La Canada at 3:30 p.m. Aug. 26, soon grew into a deadly monster. Two firefighters lost their lives. At least six people were injured. Nearly 100 homes were lost. Nearly 5,000 firefighters battled flames on three or four major fronts. Smoke choked a city. What began as a small hillside fire that was originally 20% contained within 300 or so acres, soon became an uncontrolled beast that wiped out a major national forest.
Yet, for the most part, local journalism covering this major dramatic moment lacked drama. Sure, we had occasion stories of drama - like rescues of wild and exotic animals at refuges or the battle to save radio towers and historic observatories. But, when you have thousands of firefighters spread out over 150 square miles and flames more than 100 feet high, it's time to get into the field as a reporter and get the news. (Note: Many great news photographers did not let us down in this one).
I don't mean to pick on an particular news organization or reporter, but I will offer one story to exemplify my point. Today's article in the Santa Clarita Signal tells the story of two animal trainers in Acton who saw the fire coming, forcing them to relocate bears, deer and elephants (yes, Elephants!) before they got trapped by 100-foot flames. With him were firefighters who also were trapped and they used his stone house as protection while the flames roared past. The owner stayed in his stone house. Everyone survived.
This may not be the MOST dramatic story of this fire, but is certainly could be in top five. There is so much more to tell in this story, so much more emotion and "color" to paint the picture. (Could you have at least asked the normally silly question: "Were you scared?").
Worse? We're getting this story nearly five days later. The drama happened Saturday, Aug. 29. The only other news outlet to interview Handley (from a quick Google search) was the CBS network news two days earlier - and that was only a story about residents refusing to evacuate. Hardly a mention about the drama that came across Handley, his neighbor, the animals, the trapped firefighters.
Perhaps one of the greatest stories about a deadly wildfire was in a book, about the 1994 Colorado "South Canyon" fire that killed 14 firefighters. What made me read the book was an excerpt in a magazine. Even the excerpt was storytelling at its best, providing me the picture and the drama as if I was there. That story then was a new benchmark for me as a writer, a new challenge to write better.
So, what's your view? Are we losing the ability to capture a story in our rush to get news out via the Internet? Maybe we're OK with the tidbits via a blog or RSS feed and will be OK to get the story much later when the book is published? Not me.
Next up will be how we take all this into consideration as we do our public relations jobs.