'Chicken dinner' stories

Dateline: Tue 26 May 2009

Blog and newspaper reader Randy Baughn, a photographer at the Star for 20 years before he left in July 2006 to run his own business, sent an interesting email over the weekend about a very fine story published Saturday in the paper -- reporter Francesca Jarosz's insightful account of the life and times of rocker Henry Lee Summer, "A Life Unraveled."

Randy's thoughts echo what many of us believe to be the truth about newspapers:

"I noticed in The Star this morning a pretty good story about Henry Lee Summer," he writes.

"It was good to see some local content with some depth, quotes from friends, relatives etc...the kind of writing that can't be done in an afternoon. I think most  newspapers still have the capacity/capability to do this. I don't think most reporters will be given the 3-5 days of phone calls and interview time it takes to make a good story, give it the local ties and make it interesting.

"Too bad, the current business model of large newspapers is fundamentally broke (and the current economics just hastened the skid). I certainly don't think a couple of well-written stories will keep the ship from sinking, but I think a lot of them would slow it down.

"A friend of mine told me the other day that any good paper needs 'chicken dinner stories'...stories about local people and affairs, that families and friends can discuss over a 'chicken dinner' on a Sunday afternoon. Regional and National 'fluff' and even some local stories just don't have the draw. Just my 2  cents!"

Randy is right on the money, and 'chicken dinner' stories is a perfect moniker. I read Jarosz' story Saturday morning with rapt fascination; I was impressed that she went to a Downtown club where he was performing and that she sat with him between sets, getting his version of his life. That, plus all the other points Randy makes, are what had me telling everyone I interacted with this weekend about the story. It was a "you gotta read this" moment.

Not too many years ago, former Star reporter Bill Shaw wandered Indiana, telling stories about everyday and often heroic Hoosiers. Features writer Kathy Jesse had the same magic touch. Both those writers are gone -- I blame Gannett -- and their loss sent a signal that the big G didn't really care abotu  human interest features anymore.

But hope springs eternal. In addition to Jarosz's extremely well-done story, reporter Dam McFeely Thursday wrote an excellent account of accident victim Jeremy Warriner's efforts to win a lawsuit with Chrysler, now in bankruptcy; and reporter Will Higgins' told us about the new Snake Pit that is turn 3 at the track in Sunday's paper.

As Baughn suggests, offering these sorts of treats probably will not save the day. But it will surely make the paper more "readable" and, in an ideal world, prep the way for whatever future is out there. "Tell Good Stories" used to be a motto that many reporters (literally) had pasted at their desks...

Here is the link to Jarosz' story:



Tell The Truth [Member] said:

This is an excellent post. I think I've posted before on my smalltown newspaper days, when the little bergs had correspondents who sent in weekly chicken-dinner news, on a much smaller scale: who visited whom after church, whose kid was going to Mexico for summer study, etc.

Hands-down the most popular section of the weekly newspaper. That, and the police blotter.

Nosy? Naw. Interested in their neighbors. Indy and other metro areas could use a dose of that,even if smaller doses. People yearn to feel connected to one another.

I read Henry Lee's story and almost wept. A tremendous talent, cast aside like so much trash.

2009-05-26 13:29:33

Randy [unverified] said:

The "chicken dinner" concept came from a publisher for a group of small newspapers in the Long Beach CA area. He said they are facing the same struggles as all papers are, but they are doing better than most. Why? He thinks the stories about Suzy on the softball team and Billy cutting grass for the widow lady for free really boost readership.
People do want to be connected to each other.

2009-05-26 15:04:26

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