OFF THE CUFF

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of talking with a man possessing a rich background in the field of journalism.

His life story is no doubt book-worthy, but in short, the gentleman is a cornucopia of knowledge and information about all things related to print media.

Being a first-generation newspaper guy with a bachelor’s degree in communications from Wazzu (that’s Washington State University for all you Husky fans), and as someone who has worked at weekly community papers in Georgia and Missouri, I found it interesting (but not surprising) that the man and I shared some chuckles about a few similar experiences. In particular, we agreed that it’s always fascinating (and often a bit weird) to observe which stories or editorial pieces garner significant attention. The bottom line is, that’s really hard to predict.

Obviously, there are articles about big issues or incidents that attract massive attention simply by their existence, like recaps of murders or stories about escaped murderers. But it’s beyond that where the journalistic lottery takes place – whether the content is hard news, feature, opinion or anything else (if there is anything else), the stuff that raises eyebrows, piles up online views or spurs comments is often surprising.

On that subject, the man shared how he once wrote an editorial piece about crabgrass. He didn’t get specific about how it read, but it basically contained statements about how crabgrass has no redeeming value to society, is generally an eyesore and a pain in the rear, and we would all ultimately be better off if it was simply eradicated once and for all.

Here, here! No more crabgrass on city lawns! Maybe there should be bumper stickers on every car bearing the “international no crabgrass symbol” (you know, the red circle with a diagonal line across it and a little chunk of crabgrass in the middle). Maybe there should be a National Crabgrass Elimination week.

C’mon people, we’re better than crabgrass! Let’s do this!

The man said he vividly recalled getting numerous comments about the piece and how several “letters to the editor” were submitted on the subject after it was published. He said that even though he wrote it on a whim and it was pretty much tongue-in-cheek, it caused more of an uproar than just about anything else he could remember.

I can relate.

I’ll produce something I think in some way has value or meaning to the community and the reaction is like the old crickets chirping sound bite. But when my dog visits a state park and “shares her experience” in column form, I’m almost sure to hear about it while I’m eating a chimichanga at Cozumel or pumping gas at Murphy’s.

The Houston Herald website is the perfect barometer for gauging this subject. Almost inevitably, when a big story about an important local issue is posted, it garners fewer views that the latest report about a guy beating up his girlfriend (often far fewer).

Again, there’s nothing set in stone and it’s not possible to know for sure what will peg the interest meter, but it’s safe to say it’s a matter of expecting the unexpected.

Coverage of the next step for a charitable organization? Crickets.

Coverage of the next insult delivered by a 7-year-old Corgi? Comments.

Come to think of it, the phenomenon the man and I were discussing is the same one that often makes TV newscast segments about a singer falling off a stage or a man finding a long-lost toy on the shelf of the thrift store six states away from his home town more popular than those about deadly storms or the squashing of major public uprisings in big cities in Islamic countries. And it’s worth pointing out that the “phenomenon” is one created by the consumer.

Never mind when you hear someone complain about how the media expends too much energy on coverage of trivial, menial subjects. If that’s indeed the case, it’s because that’s what draws peoples’ attention.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” as Jerry and friends once repeatedly said during a classic episode of “Seinfeld.” People are welcome to find interest in whatever – it’s just interesting to observe what they’re interested in.

The good news is, life in general produces a continuous flow of both the routine and regular and the strange and unusual, so there won’t soon be a shortage of all forms of material for use by the countless media sources around the world. And while this column doesn’t focus exclusively on that which is abnormal or absurd, it will certainly continue paying due attention to that type of thing.

Which, I believe, will likely result in some interest – and probably comments. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. 

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald.

Email: ddavison@houstonherald.com.

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