Monday, 13 June 2011

Telling a Story

The sweet spots for the news media are the beginning and the end of stories, it's the middle that requires resources and time, and few news organizations have either now. There's the dreadful "good story" syndrome when something breaks, no matter how awful the news is (fortunately it's just said in newsrooms).  What facts there are are gathered, and the worse the news is the more difficult it is to get information. My rule of thumb really came from a speech by Eric Malling, the celebrated investigative journalist who worked both for the 5th Estate on CBC, and W5 on CTV. He said very few people who go "on the record" (ie. do an interview) will tell you anything worthwhile, it's the "off the record" stuff that really has value.  My feeling was the least we could do is find out what's really going on, and if that meant several off-the record conversations, then so be it.  Producers like (and reporters do too) "on the record" confirmation from players in a story, and it certainly makes for better story telling in the finished product, but  demanding that there be "clips" before a story can be done really puts control of the story in the participant's hands. If they don't talk then often the story doesn't get told (until a media competitor does it). It's one of the reasons crime stories, fires, and accidents have such a hold on newsrooms.  Something unusual (news) has happened, the facts are generally there for everyone to see, and police/ fire chiefs are credible sources of information (not always great interviews). I used to wonder  how relevant these stories are to people's lives (other than feeling "there but for the grace of someone go I"), but in every case these tragedies are very important to someone, and certainly in the familiar and tight communities in the Maritimes, people want to know. 

The first day of a story is critical for the participants involved  too, because it's those first impressions that almost always stick, even if the facts are wrong, and partisan politics often leads stories astray.   I can remember a few years ago when Waste Watch fees went up just as stories about the poor quality of the compost being produced at the Brookfield site came to light.  The then Liberal opposition linked the two together, "poor quality compost meant the private company operating the site needs more money, so waste watch fees went up".  Sounded credible, but it just wasn't true. There was a fixed contract  that determined what the company was paid that still had another year or two to run, in fact it was the Island Waste Management Corporation (a crown corporation) that needed more money from Waste Watch fees, but the first version was just too good not to be true.

The lack of time and resources in hard-pressed newsrooms is very real. There was a time when Compass was just an hour, had three more producers, production assistants, three more reporters,  and two more editors/camera operators.  There was a full-time "current affairs" unit that would daily churn out five to six minute stories on the issues of the day, and you could even have two or three days to work on these stories.  That's long gone now. Two minutes or less is what's demanded, and a story needs to stand up on all the "platforms" radio, tv, the web. It's a more efficient use of resources, and all that people can possibly do, but I doubt anyone at CBC would argue that audiences are as well served as they once were.  My former colleagues will know this, but it's the two minute hard time limit that always confounded me.  I'd always argue that the story, and the elements you're able to gather, should dictate the length of the story, and that unlike other urban markets, people aren't going to rush off to some other news channel if something goes two and a half or three minutes. (these were arguments I always lost).

I mention all of this because I think we are in the "dreaded middle" of an important story: the economic and social collapse in rural areas in the Maritimes.  The economic struggles of primary producers is hardly new (or news), and the last farm family hasn't turned the lights out.  The real key for me are the number of families that are hanging on by bleeding away their equity, and are insisting that their children do anything but farm or fish. It's a complex story of shifting economic power to middlemen and retailers, free trade, staggering debt levels, political disinterest, and a reassuring focus on what people who work in newsrooms see everyday, supermarkets filled to the brim with  food from everywhere, at prices, relative to income levels, most in the world can only dream of.  It's not neat and tidy, and certainly needs more than two minutes to make sense of.

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