December 21, 2007

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To understand journalism, you need to know the nature of The Story. Every story has three elements: 1) a character, 2) a problem, and 3) movement toward resolution. The character could be a person, a cause, a ball club — doesn’t matter, as long as the reader (or the viewer, or the listener) can identify with it (or him, or her, or them). The problem is what keeps us reading forward, turning the pages, or staying tuned in. It’s what keeps things interesting. And the motion has to vector toward resolution, even if the conclusion is far off in the future.

Sports are pure story fodder. Teams and players are your characters, the games and the procession of opponents are the problem (and the problems within the problem), and there is always movement toward resolution. Even after resolution, new problems, often with new characters within the team’s own character, are being queue’d up.

There are lots of important developments, however, that do not conform to the story format, so they go unreported. One example is murder in places where sudden and senseless death is common. Such has been the case in Los Angeles for many decades. It was, after all, the very point of Chinatown.

Well, L.A. is no Chinatown for Jill Leovy, who has been blogging otherwise uncovered homicides around the city for most of the last year. Her blog is one of the LA Times’s, and it is itself the subject of Life After Death, a Times story about a reporter reporting stories that fail to fit in the Times’ own limited number of pages. Leovy’s own story is an interesting one…

  People often ask if the work depresses her, a question she finds irritating. “Yes,” she tells them. “I find it depressing and upsetting. That’s why I do it.”

… as are the stories she crafts and her blog hosts:

  “The real story,” says Leovy, is the shooting victim’s mother who staggers into the intensive care unit and cannot see her son’s face through his ventilator, yet manages to spot a tear in the corner of his eye…
  Because so few murders receive any other coverage, victims’ family members use the Homicide Report as a memorial wall on which they can etch online eulogies. After Leovy reported the death of a Long Beach man in his thirties, she received one brief response: “He was my father.” After scrolling through the listing of victims, another reader wrote, “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!”

Stories are the basic format of human interest. The LA Times’ many blogs provide ways to surface more stories, in more ways, for more readers who might find some of those stories meaningful. Or effective, if a larger purpose is involved. Clearly The Homicide Report is far more than an accessory to the coroner’s office. Its own story is Leovy’s mission to expose and reduce the plague of death that continues to afflict her city:

  “If you just brush away the high homicide rate in South L.A. as the city’s dirty little secret, I don’t think we’ll ever make the commitment or allocate the resources necessary to change it,” says Charlie Beck, deputy chief of the LAPD’s South Bureau. “Equal justice and coverage of everyone — that’s the reason I think she does the blog, and I agree with that.”

As for the rest of the LA Times’ blogs, it’s getting harder to tell where the paper ends and the blogging begins — unless all you read is the paper and never go online, in which case you miss more and more of what the paper is becoming.

Supporting that observation are Tony Pierce’s take on his first day as blog editor at the paper, and departed assistant editorial page editor Matt Welch’s blast at an especially pontifical piece by Tim Rutten, the Times’ media columnist. Rutten (whom I’ve always liked, for what it’s worth) is moving on too, as he explains in this piece about turnover at the top of the Times’ parent company.

Companies are ways of organizing work and resources. They are also teams on missions to solve problems. How the ones we call ‘papers’ adapt to a world where more can be written online than off, and for more readers, is the top evolutionary challenge for the institution we call journalism, and therefore its most important story.

The principles of practice are the same. The enviornment is not. Nor are the opportunities, which are far more abundant, if less obviously remunerative. (Not all journalists can live alongside the advertising river. Nor should they.) Which means there will continue to be a struggle between missions like Leovy’s and the need for paychecks.

Los Angeles Magazine has a long and excellent piece by RJ Smith on the News-Press mess in Santa Barbara. It’s about two subjects. One is the meltdown at the paper itself — a story that’s now a year and a half old, with no sign of ever ending. The other is the question of whether a newspaper — especially one that has long been a bedrock civic institution — is a public trust. The News-Press, sadly, is not. It only looks like one. Via Craig Smith.