A front-page story in The News & Observer last week set off an unusual exchange of letters to the editor.
The news was the arrival of financier Bernard Madoff at a federal prison in Butner, N.C. The letters weren’t about Madoff so much as the tone and approach of the story, which was written as a letter to Madoff with tips on how to get used to his new home. Some readers cheered; others jeered.
Here’s a look at how the story came together from two N&O journalists and the reaction to it from two of my colleagues at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill:
MANDY LOCKE, reporter
THE BACK STORY: “I wish I could take more credit for the approach, but it was actually Steve Merelman (1A editor) who asked me to take this approach. The story of Madoff arriving had little news value. We’d already heard and learned much about Madoff’s misdeeds, so this was a story, quite simply, about him coming to North Carolina. There was much intrigue about Butner in general, and the facility was in our backyard. Ignoring his arrival altogether was never an option. … The story took a surprising amount of reporting. There’s much I didn’t know about Butner.”
READER REACTION: “Some readers LOVED it. I’ve gotten about a dozen e-mails and calls praising the ingenuity and thanking me for making them laugh. About a half-dozen readers shook their fingers and said our approach was sophomoric and unnecessary.”
THE AFTERMATH: “We’ll never please every reader with every story. I like to think of the newspaper as a buffet. You take some stories and pass on others. As things are getting more desperate in newspapers, I think we’re more willing to try new things. This approach most certainly was.”
STEVE MERELMAN, front-page editor
THE BACK STORY: “We had originally planned an alternative story form. But after giving the news that Madoff had come to Butner, I couldn’t see what we might say that could be interesting. I’ve read the “Hey, here’s what that prison’s like” story before, and I didn’t think that breaking it up into bits and pieces would improve it much. So I suggested that Mandy give it a spin by pitching the ASF right at Madoff, sort of a user’s guide to Butner. Mandy came up with the letter idea on her own. We kept the headline pretty straight and let that and the picture carry the news and serve as a serious counterpoint to Mandy’s article.”
READER REACTION: “I expected that some people wouldn’t like it. They have certain expectations of how a newspaper should sound, and this contradicted those expectations. I’m glad they take us and our responsibility seriously. I also expected that some people would find it refreshing, and they did. We tried to keep the tone a little impertinent but not cruel, and to make sure that it fulfilled all the usual requirements of a news story — who, what, where … and whatever the other Ws are.”
AFTERMATH: “Mainly, I was pleased that lots of people read the piece. I’m not in favor of provocation for provocation’s sake, but a newspaper that isn’t read has got real problems.”
REACTION FROM THE J-SCHOOL
Phil Meyer, author of “The Vanishing Newspaper” and retired journalism professor: “When I read it, I thought the writer cared more about showing off than giving the news. It’s not ‘interesting writing’ that will save newspapers; it’s interesting facts. And that takes work. This story puts the reader to a lot of trouble with not enough new information or insight to justify the effort.”
Chris Roush, journalism professor and blogger at Talking Biz News: “I’m OK with it. Not the biggest fan of such stories. I think they’re better as columns.”
Newspapers must experiment to survive. Now is not the time to be timid. Not all of the experiments will succeed, but that’s the point of trying something different.
This particular story needed something beyond the typical inverted pyramid approach. That kind of story was available online almost as soon as Madoff arrived at the prison. For the next day’s print newspaper, editors and reporters have to deliver something that readers haven’t seen yet.
This story, gimmick and all, did that. It’s more about Butner than Madoff, but for the Raleigh paper, that’s the local angle.
Was this approach to this story risky? Yes. But it fit the medium and the moment.
UPDATE: The links on this post have been broken because of a resdesign of the N&O site. Apologies for the inconvenience.