I ran into a friend at a birthday party at the Saranac Lake Civic Center a few weeks ago, and we got to talking about work.
At one point he asked how things at the Enterprise had been, and I said it was pretty busy. I named a few stories I had written lately.
He then told me that he had stopped buying the paper. I asked him why.
"I just got tired of reading all the bad news," he said.
I wasn't completely surprised, but not because I agreed with him. I've heard that several times before in the roughly 10 years that I've been a local reporter.
The last time was a few years ago, when I was giving a talk about covering local news to the Saranac Lake Rotary Club. At the end of my presentation, someone stood up and asked me why local reporters don't write more about the "positive" things happening in the community.
It's a good question. Why don't we write more "good news" stories? Why does the "bad news" often seem to dominate the headlines?
First of all, I think it's very difficult to categorize many of the stories we're writing at the Enterprise as simply good or bad, positive or negative. That might be different in larger media outlets like Buffalo or New York City, where there's a lot more negative stories - murders, rapes and five-alarm fires - to report on.
But here in the Tri-Lakes and the North County, it's harder to divvy up the stories we write as simply good or bad. Take last week for example. I went back and tried to group each of the roughly a dozen local stories I had written as either positive or negative. It wasn't easy.
Among the stories I thought could be considered bad news were the crash of a Saranac Lake police car, an update on a fatal hit and run on the Northway and the local schools and ski areas that were forced to close due to the weather.
But there were also what I'd say were some definite good news stories. For example, the delivery of two new hyperbaric chambers for Adirondack Health's new wound-care center and the proposed expansion of Ampersand Bay Resort.
But how would we categorize these stories? "End in sight for Saranac Lake water project," "Committee formed to study Saranac Lake airport" or "Party caucuses set for next week in SL."
In my mind, they're neither positive or negative. They're simply stories we are obligated to write and should write because the subject, we believe, is in the interest of the public.
More than anything, I believe, that's what fuels the decisions about what stories we pursue - gauging our readers' interest. But how do we do that?
While it isn't written down on the wall anywhere in the newsroom, there's a several criteria that I think we as reporters all try to satisfy before digging into something.
We select a story because it has the potential to impact many people, like a property tax increase or the closure of a prison. An interesting story is also timely; for example, we've written at length lately about the rising prescription drug abuse problem in the North Country. Stories about well-known people or places are also interesting. If you and I walked into Blue Moon Cafe for coffee, that wouldn't be worth a story. But when Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his girlfriend did, we wrote about it.
Other factors that make a story interesting are if there's conflict involved, for example the recent rail-trail debate, or if the subject is about people's everyday interests or problems, like the price or gas. Bizarre or out-of-the ordinary events like Chris Morris' story last week about a woman claiming she won the lottery, or human-interest stories, like Mike Lynch's recent story about Vermontville photographer Rick Gonyea, are also what are in our readers' interest.
It's worth noting that although there's a frequent call for newspapers to publish "good" news, there's research out there that shows people want to know more about what has gone wrong than what's gone right.
A 2007 study conducted by the Pew Research Center's Center for People and the Press ranked people's news "tastes" over the prior 20 years. It found news about disasters, man-made or natural, garners the greatest interest, followed by stories on topics like employment and stories about conflict. At the other end of the spectrum, foreign news and tabloid news - stories about personalities and celebrities - engenders the least interest from readers.
It also could be argued that it is good to report on bad news so that the public is aware of the problem or issue, so efforts to resolve it can be applied. The prescription drug abuse story comes to mind, along with the recent audit of the Adirondack Regional Airport, which has led to the formation of a committee to study the airport's costs an operations.
This isn't to say that we're not seeking "positive" news stories that we feel would interest our readers. We do quite often, but sometimes it's difficult with a four-person news team to pursue other stories when you've got to cover scores of important village, town, county, school and state agency board meetings. If we don't keep the taxpayers informed about what's going on at those meetings, who will?
Maybe Associated Press President and CEO Tom Curley put it best. Last week I asked Curley, who announced his retirement after nine years with the AP, what he thinks when he hears the criticism that reporters focus too much on the negative.
"The truth is, if you want to entertain yourself and not deal with the issues of democracy, it sure is easy to do that now," he said. "You've got to cover the serious news, and if you don't you'll lose the people who are most interested in democracy, and most interested in a better life. I'd worry more about them, and ask the tough questions and do your job."
I plan to.