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A new look at old events

July 20, 2008|By CHRIS COPLEY

Here's one of the most difficult parts of modern American journalism: Staying fresh.

This crops up when we set out to cover annual events, such as this week's Ag Expo at the Washington County Agricultural Education Center. It also comes up with holidays and seasons.

Reporters have to write about Christmas, the Fourth of July, summer, flu season, but what do you say? We can't say the same thing we said the previous year. If we're not compelling, readers turn the page or set it aside and surf the Web. Yikes!

It's hard work, but the benefits are pretty clear. Journalists have developed some techniques for staying fresh in their writing.

n One approach is to highlight something new or different. Are there new activities this year at the county fair? What's the latest trend in research on a particular medical condition? Are there new local artists at the annual art festival?

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This is easy, theoretically. Most event organizers want to publicize the latest thing. Most people close to the story topic know about the latest trends. And readers do want to know what is new this year.

n Another idea is to profile a person and use him or her as a window into the event/trend. People like to read about other people. A person's story can be compelling, with obstacles, bad choices, good choices, helpful friends, failures and so on. Example: Several years ago, Herald-Mail Lifestyle reporter Kevin Clapp and I opened a story about the potential medical benefits of stem cells by profiling a woman whose Alzheimer's disease might be addressed by advances in proposed stem-cell therapies.

n A trick is finding a person who is a good representative of the topic and willing to be interviewed. We try to find ordinary people - not officials or organizers associated with the topic. It can be hard to find ordinary people. It can take a lot of phone calls.

Not everyone wants to be interviewed. Depending on the story, reporters can ask probing questions. It's fun to read about the juicy details of other people's lives, but not everyone wants to reveal their own lives.

n Another way to write a fresh, attention-getting story on an annual topic is to approach it from a new angle. Write a first-person story, say, create a photo essay, or turn the usual story on its head. For instance, last week, Herald-Mail reporter Julie E. Greene and videographer Dustin Lawyer previewed the Monster Jam at Hagerstown Speedway by climbing into the truck of local driver Michael Vaters and going for a ride.

Approaching a topic in a fresh way is not just a literary effort. It's also a mental effort. Reporters and editors need to be willing to see something new in the same-old, same-old. It's obvious, but that doesn't make it easy.

And in that way, journalism is like life. The benefits of seeing the same-old, same-old in a new way are available to everybody. It happens to us all - something or someone new becomes familiar, then too familiar, then boring. Keeping fresh is tough work.

Tough work, but worth it. The results of a fresh approach can make writing and living more compelling.

Chris Copley is Lifestyle editor of The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2343, or by e-mail at chrisc@herald-mail.com.

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