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The quest for human-interest stories

FRANK TAYLOR
Managing Editor

“We need to get more human-interest stories in the paper.” Newspaper editors hear that one frequently.
The exact words may vary a little: “I’ve got some good news for you to print in the paper for a change.”
A lot of people who come to the newspaper with “human-interest” tips have stories we want to hear and share. They come bearing tales that tell themselves, not needing any special pleading.
However, many items presented to the newspaper as “human interest,” are primarily in the self-interests of the messengers, and potentially contrary to the interests of their rivals and competitors.
Not long ago a business running a sales promotion let it be known that the Times-News had declined to report on its big “human-interest” story. But the last time we checked, a sale is a subject for advertising and not news; we’re sure that store’s  competitors would fully agree.
This term “human interest” gets thrown about so much that it’s almost empty of meaning.
According to the popular Wikipedia website (as it stood on Friday), “In journalism, a human interest story is a feature story that discusses a person or people in an emotional way. It presents people and their problems, concerns, or achievements in a way that brings about interest or sympathy in the reader or viewer.”
The entry continues, “Human interest stories may be the story behind the story about an event, organization or otherwise faceless historical happening …. Human interest stories are sometimes criticized as “soft” news, or manipulative….”
This is a good introduction to the concept. But how does it apply to a newspaper like the Lincoln Times-News? And what’s the point of a human-interest story? Is it a good thing or a bad thing?
A well-presented human-interest story can be highly desirable, representing excellent content in a newspaper. But a badly executed human-interest story can be annoyingly sweet or unconvincingly weepy. The worst of the genre can be nothing short of free propaganda, advertising someone’s business or cause.
However, this discussion is somewhat beside the point, because this isn’t how news-gathering operations approach the subject these days. Even the definition on Wikipedia represents out-of-date thinking about the practice of journalism. Yes, there was a time when newspapers, magazines and news broadcasts regularly sought out specifically “human-interest” stories. And yes, that still goes on to a limited extent.
But the emphasis in most 21st century news rooms, including ours, is to look for the human element in every story.
After hearing a recent complaint about our supposed lack of human-interest stories, in this case coming from a wannabe competitor, we looked through several recent editions of the Times-News and found that just about every major story was arguably a human-interest story. That’s the way we like it.
I sometimes tell reporters that I want them to put a human face on every story. It’s often a simple matter of how the story we’re going to tell is framed.
Take a hypthetical article that begins this way: “Council members voted 3-2 on Thursday against a motion made by John Doe to eliminate proposed spending this year in an effort to keep the millage rate from going up.”
Here’s another way to tell the same story: “Joe and Sue Smith say they are fired up about city taxes; they may sell their home and move elsewhere after city officials narrowly failed Thursday to stop an expected property tax increase.”
Not every news story has such a dramatic reaction from a person who’s available to talk to the newspaper on deadline, but we always strive to emphasize how the news affects the reader. The story isn’t that someone passed or defeated a motion. It’s that your taxes are going up or down.
The other side of the “human interest” or “good news” complaint comes from those who are really saying they don’t like what is being printed in the paper, usually about themselves or someone they know.
One former reader recently attacked our reporting on crime in a letter, but her name betrayed her motive — she was related to someone who had pleaded guilty to a serious and shocking crime. We’ve had similar complaints from supporters of politicians who do something foolish or unethical.
While we’d love to have nothing but good news to report, we believe it’s important for the paper to print the truth about what’s going in the community, and that includes when people are involved in criminal activity.
Even that is a human-interest story, full of tension between the victims and the criminals. Every worthwhile story, true or fiction, contains conflict. Part of the storyteller’s job is to frame that conflict (and the conflicting human interests involved) properly. Doing that isn’t always easy.
As for what people want in the paper, actions speak louder than words. We love running photos of cute children or patriotic events on the front page. But the papers that really sell are the ones with headlines about crime. On our website, the item generating the most traffic is the list of criminal charges.
At the same time, serving up nothing but a steady diet of crime and wrecks is a sure way to turn off subscribers. Not every reader wants the same thing and few of them want one thing all the time. More importantly, manipulating coverage in any direction just to lure readers isn’t honest and the public doesn’t stay fooled for long when something is exaggerated or something else is censored.
As a result, the best news coverage strategy, even in a small community, is truth and balance.
One concept we occasionally confront is the idea that because we don’t print every day, we’re in a fantasy “community newspaper” world in which everyone is always happy and nothing negative ever need be said.
We don’t buy the idea that residents of small towns want or deserve the truth any less than those in big cities. We have ugliness right here around us and the best way to fix it is to call it by its name — dishonesty, ignorance, prejudice, corruption, hypocrisy, greed or apathy. Exposing what ails us is not what most of us think of as “human interest,” but it’s part of the big picture.
As the old preacher said about sharing the Good News, you have to get them lost before you can get them saved. Our message might not be as important, but the principle is the same.
One way to think of our overall approach to human-interest news can be understood from an email exchange about sports I had with a job applicant a few years ago.
The excitable young writer told me that his editor at another publication had trained him to build reader interest by naming as many different kids as he could in his sports articles, regardless of whether they’d done anything newsworthy. His articles might end up being lists of names, but if every parent and grandparent bought a paper as a result, then he was really building readership with his stories.
I wrote back and explained that we were less interested in selling an extra 50 papers on a given day because so many names had been printed than we were in telling a story so well about a single athlete who had done something exceptional that 10,000 people who did not know this young person would read it, be moved, feel that they now did know the athlete on a personal level and want to keep coming back to our paper for more stories like that one day after day.
And that is human interest.
Frank Taylor is managing editor of the Lincoln Times-News.

 

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