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Never mind the sunny side

A few days ago Jim Romenesko posted this extract from a Facebook post by Beth Inglish McMillian, the new engagement editor at the Tennessean:

"I really don't like news that makes me feel sick to my stomach... and well that seems to be what our media in the U.S. likes to talk about. Why aren't we working hard to lift up the community by focusing on positive role models instead of the negative ones??"

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Reducing a thought to this compression can be treacherous, and one can hope that Ms. McMilian is less sappy than she sounds (though anyone familiar with Gannett can be excused for fearing the worst).

Ms. McMillian's views merited a response from Clark Kauffman of the Des Moines Register: "The Fourth Estate doesn’t perform a public service? Holding government and individuals publicly accountable for their actions isn’t a public service? Exposing wrongdoing isn’t a public service?"

And further: "The job descriptions for some of Gannett’s so-called “engagement editors” actually calls on them to “collaborate with local advertising and marketing personnel to ensure maximum audience and revenue returns from events.” Think about that for a second, and all of the implications that it carries…"

At The Sun we have recently demonstrated the faultiness of the city's red-light cameras, the underreporting of rapes by the Police Department, and the sums the city has paid to settle lawsuits alleging police brutality, and these articles have been well received by readers as a public service, despite the negativity they describe. This is a core component of our function. 

That said, while Ms. McMillian attempts to bring to readers the Good News about the enterprises that advertise in the Tennessean, she misses a fundamental point. I have said that our business trafficks in human misery, and that is what the reader expects and desires. If we were exclusively devoted to what H.L. Mencken called "the Uplift," we would be publishing Grit.*
They teach you in the basic news writing class that one of the fundamental elements in journalistic writing is conflict. As it is in all literature. What Flannery O'Connor says about writers of fiction in "The Teaching of Literature" applies as well to the journalist:
"It seems that the fiction writer has a revolting attachment to the poor, for even when he writes about the rich, he is more concerned with what they lack than what they have. I am very much afraid that to the fiction writer the fact that we shall always have the poor with us is a source of satisfaction, for it means, essentially, that he will always be able to find someone like himself. His concern with poverty is with a poverty fundamental to man. I believe that the basic experience of everyone is the experience of limitation."
Mind you, even among the listicles** that engagement editors appear to favor, uplifting articles about the conflicts of people who have risen above difficult circumstances can still be found. And, to be fair, there is plenty of journalism that depresses. Political journalism is distressing, as it has been since the earliest days of the Republic, given to superficialities, a focus on personality rather than policy, to partisanship, and sensationalism, all with a fine disregard for factual accuracy. 
But even so, the bad news gets read. The reader's motives may not be noble: taking comfort in the misfortiunes of other people, finding a thrill in the details of violent crimes, indulging in nosiness or schadenfreude. But they are the reader's actual interests, and you go to publication with readers as they are, not as you would wish them to be. 
For the journalist, keeping on the sunny side, always on the sunny side, keeping on the sunny side of life is not a shrewd career move. 

Note: I originally mistook Ms. McMillian's sentence as a tweet rather than part of a Facebook post. A reader kindly pointed out my error.


*For those of you lacking a background in the Heartland, Grit is a farming publication proclaiming itself a "family publication promoting qualities of courage and dedication to make a difference."

**Term of art for those Top Five, Top Ten, Top Whatever lists that infest the Internet. They are ever so much easier to write than actual articles.

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