Holes, non sequiturs and missed opportunity: The right questions can help make 'silk purse' stories.
For sow's ear stories, that's challenge enough.
However, some stories offer another sort of challenge and opportunity. We should approach those with minds wide open, with the creative person's natural inventiveness and curiosity. One of the chief tasks of a creative intellect is to see connections - to associate, analyze, extrapolate. Seeing only the obvious is a failure of both intellect and imagination, and in newspapers, it results in a failure to present the real story, the more interesting story, or the story within the story.
Consider the following, which appeared in a daily newspaper that serves a largely rural region. A high-powered Hollywood advertising agency had produced some television ads for Audi in one of the small communities served by the newspaper. The front-page story covering the event dealt only with the obvious: They came, they saw, they filmed. The lead has some writing problems, but its greater problem is missed opportunity. (To avoid embarrassing writer or newspaper, I've given city and principals new names. Otherwise, the lead is unchanged.)
'Buy an Audi,' Town Cleric Janie Smith quipped Wednesday when a 65-member Hollywood film crew finished its morning shoot of an Audi car commercial on Beauville's Main Street.
Will wheat farmers start buying wheat?
Maybe not. But Beauville apparently is a good place to film a commercial.
'They wanted an older farming community. They liked the looks of it,' Jon Noble, a town maintenance and utility worker, said about the Hollywood firm, Sanford Bowen Associates Inc., which shot the commercial for Audi.
Starting a story with a quotation is always risky, but this one ("Buy an Audi") is especially weak. It's not much of a "quip," and it unleashes a non sequitur:
* An advertising agency is filming an Audi commercial in Beauville.
* Therefore, the Audi company wants wheat farmers to buy Audis.
Is the Audi company trying to get wheat farmers to buy Audis? Probably not: The car's niche market is the upscale boomer.
So what is going on? We don't know because the story doesn't tell us: What is the ad campaign's message, and why Beauville? The story deals only with the what not the why. We read that the ads feature a father and daughter traveling in an Audi station wagon. That several other shiny new Audis are on hand, including a convertible. That a local man driving a tractor appears alongside the Audi in one segment. That the crew has cleared the scene of modern road signs and parked '60s cars and pick-ups along Beauville's streets.
The only answer to why comes from a local utility worker, who says the ad folks "liked the looks of" Beauville. That's no answer. And no wonder - he's not the right one to ask. He has no facts, no solid information. Why not ask the agency reps or advertising crew? They could say something interesting even if only: "We wanted to play this upscale import against the backdrop of an older rural community." The why to that remark would yield even better material.
How do I know what agency or advertisers might say? I don't; I'm just guessing. And that's the problem: Stories that lack full information always make readers guess, and they shouldn't have to.
The advertising world has its reasons, and its reasons have to do with assumptions about its audience, about the culture, about psychology, about the image that manipulates. Treating this story as a small and obvious news item sacrificed a more interesting, substantive and enlightening story.
Even the best writers can leave holes in a story or fail to see the real story. To avoid those pitfalls, respect your own curiosity. Ask:
* Have I listened to my own questions?
* Have I asked those questions?
* Have I asked the right people?
The writer of the Audi story asked why, but he asked the wrong person. Getting something from the agency's crew shouldn't have been hard: The filming took two days. But if, for some reason, the reporter couldn't talk to the crew, that Hollywood agency has a phone number and every account has a manager.
Still, having said that, let's suppose we're line editors on deadline, and the story above is the story we get. It's too late to seize missed opportunity. There's no time to rewrite or to collect information not provided by the story. At that point, the best we can do, usually, is fix a story's mechanics. How could we quickly salvage this lead, both for form and content, and lose the non sequitur? Here's one way:
Will wheat country buy Audis?
Maybe not. But Audi advertisers have bought wheat country.
But best: Give the story back to the writer with a short list of salient questions. Give him another day. The story is not urgent; more critical is creating something interesting. You'll do the writer a favor as well as the reader.
Paula LaRocque is assistant managing editor and writing coach at The Dallas Morning News. She will be a Headline speaker at the SPI national convention in October. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org