I had the pleasure the other day of sitting and talking with a man possessing a rich background in the journalism field who was visiting the Herald office on information-gathering mission.
His life story is no doubt book-worthy, but in short Virginia native Walt Potter Jr. is a third generation newspaper man with a master’s degree in journalism from Mizzou who has worked at or run publications in both small town and big city environments in multiple locations in the U.S.
Being a first-generation fish-wrap guy with a bachelor’s degree in communications from Wazzu (that’s Washington State University for all you Husky fans) who has worked at small papers in two states, I found it interesting (albeit not surprising) that we shared chuckles about a few similar experiences. In particular, we agreed that it’s always fascinating (and often a bit weird) to observe which stories or editorial pieces garner significant attention. The bottom line is, that’s really hard to predict.
Obviously, there are articles about big issues or incidents that attract massive attention simply by their existence. But it’s the rest where the journalistic lottery takes place – whether the content is hard news, feature, opinion or anything else (if there is anything else), the stuff that raises eyebrows, piles up online views or spurs comments (officially submitted or otherwise) can often be surprising.
On that subject, Walt shared how he once wrote an editorial piece about crabgrass. He didn’t get specific about how it read, but I envisioned statements about how crabgrass has no redeeming value to society, is generally an eyesore and a pain in the rear, and we would all ultimately be better off if it was simply eradicated once and for all.
Here, here! No more crabgrass on city lawns! Bumper stickers on every car bearing the “international no crabgrass” symbol (you know, the red circle with a diagonal line across it and a little chunk of crabgrass in the middle)!
C’mon people, we’re better than crabgrass! Let’s do this!
Walt said he vividly recalls getting numerous comments about the piece and how several “letters to the editor” were submitted on the subject after it was published. He said it caused more of an uproar than about anything else he can remember.
I can relate.
I’ll produce something I think in some way has value or meaning to the community and the reaction is the old crickets chirping. But when my dog visits a state park and shares his experience or when my donkey has something to say, I’m almost sure to hear about it while I’m eating a chimichanga at Cozumel (dang good, by the way) or pumping gas at Casey’s.
Again, there’s nothing set in stone and it’s not possible to know for sure what will peg the interest meter, but it’s safe to say it’s a matter of expecting the unexpected.
Coverage of the next step for a charitable organization? Crickets.
Coverage of the next insult delivered by a 26-year-old Arabian gelding? Comments.
Come to think of it, the phenomenon Walt and I were discussing is the same one that often makes TV newscast segments about a singer falling off a stage or a man finding a long-lost toy on the shelf of the thrift store on the opposite side of the country more popular than those about plane crashes and terrorist uprisings. And it’s worth pointing out that the “phenomenon” is one created by the consumer.
Never mind when you hear someone complain about how the media expends too much energy on coverage of trivial, menial subjects. It’s only that way because that’s what draws peoples’ attention.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” as Jerry and friends once repeatedly said during a classic episode of “Seinfeld.” People are welcome to find interest in whatever – it’s just interesting to observe what they’re interested in.
The good news is, life in general produces a continuous flow of both the routine and regular and the strange and unusual, so there won’t soon be a shortage of any form of material in this publication. And while this column doesn’t focus exclusively on that which is abnormal or absurd, it will certainly continue paying due attention to that genre of material.
Which, I believe, should result in more interest – and probably comments. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. His columns are posted on the blog page at www.houstonherald.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.