What do you do? Who are you with? These are common follow-up questions after exchanging names and pleasantries when meeting someone for the first time.
When people find out what I do, they gladly offer their assessment on the merits or shortcomings of the newspaper, along with handy suggestions for its improvement.
The refrains range from “I read it every day” to “I don’t ever read it.” They express their love of the Opinions section or their disagreement with every editorial. They tell me of their favorite comics and puzzles, and lament lost features (“When are you going to bring back the horoscope?”)
Seated at a table at the Augusta West Rotary Club meeting this week, I was asked this common question: Where do the stories come from to fill up the paper every day?
As I spoke of beats and buildings and sources and tips – the usual suspects – I waited for the natural follow-up question:
But what makes it news?
Although the question never came, I know my answer can never be like Justice Potter Stewart’s standard: I know it when I see it.
Journalists and people who think about and teach journalism have been trying to wrap their heads around that question for decades – usually with similar results.
The first time I spent a long time thinking about it was in the early 1990s, at a writing and editing workshop at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank and training center.
Our group’s homework from one of the sessions was to come up with a new definition of news.
Someone asked: How is it defined now?
So I was assigned the task of going to the library and doing some research on what the old definition of news was – and how journalists learned it.
In the library, I found a copy of a text book from the 1920s on news reporting and writing. (The book is now it its 11th printing.)
He offered criteria for newsworthiness, such as timeliness, proximity, impact, importance, unusualness and conflict. At some point, human interest also became one of the values.
As our group talked about the new definitions of news, we realized our new definitions were very close to the old ones – but some of the names had changed. And the notions of unusualness and human interest had been further dissected into other categories.
Someone asked which was the most important. The resounding vote-getter was proximity. Geography drives news decisions. Local, local, local.
That is what sets each newspaper apart from every other, what is happening in its town. That is the main distinguishing characteristic, even in the Internet age.
One of the journalists at the Poynter workshop, a reporter from Colombia, summed it up: “It is like Tolstoy said, ‘When you write about your village, you write about the world.’ ”