What’s the story? That’s the question the news director of a popular Chicago radio
station consistently asked me when I worked as her summer intern, 31 years ago. She’d send me to cover stories that weren’t newsworthy enough for the paid staff, and then goad me afterwards to tell her the story I’d just experienced in 10 words or less.
It was merciless tactic, but a very effective one. She’d get in my face, quite literally, to force me to whittle my observations down to one succinct and relevant line.
For example, the fifty or so words I’d initially strung together about the opening of Taste of Chicago made a pretty description and a nice fifteen second story, or so I’d thought. Her expression, looking up from my typed news copy, said otherwise. While I won’t claim to recall our word-for-word discussion, it went something like this:
“This is about the right length, Julie, and it has some the right information, but you’re missing the lead. Why should I care about this? What’s the story?”
I was a bit flustered and speechless, so she continued:
“Most of our listeners are white, middle class, ages 25 -44. They like adult contemporary music, funny morning drive time personalities and just enough news to keep them from sounding like they live in a cave. Why should they care?”
Panicked, I tried to think of a different tact.
“Well…Chicago Fest was really the city’s big music festival, but it was seen as Mayor Bilandic’s brainchild, so Mayor Byrne didn’t want to continue it and now Mayor Washington doesn’t want to, either. So the city’s now putting all of its efforts into making Taste of Chicago the city’s biggest food and music festival…”
She stared at me and sighed deeply, her hands folded neatly in front of her.
“That might fly if this was the Chicago Tribune, or even Chicago Public Radio, but this is an FM radio station that runs a 5 minute newscast at the top of the hour during morning and evening drive times. Why should our audience care? ”
I took a deep breath and tried again.
“Because they may want to go to Taste of Chicago?”
She nodded .
“So the lead should just say that Taste of Chicago, the world’s biggest food festival, is now open for business and it has a live music stage this year, too?”
She gave me a weary thumbs-up and shooed me out of her office.
That news director terrified me, but I learned more from her that summer than from any single faculty member who taught me over four years at the University of Iowa. Along with learning to write crisp and short broadcast copy, I saw firsthand the decision-making that goes into figuring out what is, and isn’t news for respective audiences. While my internship was unpaid, the value of that education was — as they say in the American Express commercials — priceless. The lessons learned are as integral to effective communications today as they were in 1985.
I’ve created this blog to re-define myself as a relevant communicator within the ever-changing digital landscape. While my technological expertise is solid, I’m far from an expert in using the vast array of digital tools now available to convey messages and stories. But I’m excited to learn them, and thrilled to be a communicator at a time when people of all ages are building new and innovative ways to share information globally on a daily, if not hourly basis.
Technology is a beautiful thing. With the flick of a few buttons on a keyboard or a smartphone, we can make airline reservations, learn possible causes for an odd-looking rash, or research the historical events that led to World War I. Our digital world allows students with significant disabilities to progress their schooling on a level playing field with their classmates, and empowers senior citizens with mobility issues to remain productive, and connected to family and friends.
Our communications environment is evolving at a break-neck pace, but the new millennium has sparked little if any change in the most elemental competencies needed to be an effective communicator. The skills required to write a 140 character Tweet aren’t different from those needed for a 15-second radio story, a newspaper headline, or even a message to be sent via telegraph — a technology invented in 1832! The analytic understanding needed to tailor messages for specific audiences hasn’t changed, either.
Most of the current everyday terms of our digital world didn’t even exist 31 years ago. Back in the day, Google described a stalker’s lewd gaze outside of someone’s window, and a Tweet was a cute cartoon bird’s garble. But chances are good that within 10-20 years, both those words will be as outdated as the IBM Selectric typewriter on which I typed my first resumé.
Today’s communications and journalism majors will need to continually adapt to new technologies, just like me. I hope they’ll have access to mentors as wise and patient as the news director of my first internship to help them develop the fundamentals.