Dolly Withrow: Can Creative Nonfiction Save Newspapers?

“The most e-mailed lists (by readers) suggest that readers will consume meaningful, interesting (and maybe even ‘important’) journalism if they feel compelled, beguiled, seduced.”

       ~ Michael Herschorn  (The Atlantic, December 2007)
Journalists give the essence of the story in the clothesline lead. They have been taught to begin a news story by telling the reader who, what, where, when, why and how. Any good journalist knows what the inverted pyramid is. All the important facts are at the top, and then the writer can taper down to less significant details. If space doesn’t allow those details, they can be lopped off. For journalists, then, the devil is in the details, and who wants to deal with the devil? Not journalists.

For fiction and creative nonfictions writers, the delight is in the details because they love vivid descriptions and the more details the better as long as they are relevant to the story. Novelists want the reader to be there with the characters in the story, so they give specific colors, aromas and dialogue. In other words, they lay in the scene, build a bit of tension, increase it to capture the readers and hold them spellbound. It’s a good tack, and nonfiction writers would do well to follow suit.

Humans have loved storytelling since cavemen sat around fire and shared their tales of adventure. The oral tradition has continued down through the ages because people love to learn about other people’s trials and experiences and ideas, whether real or imagined. That’s why there is still a market for memoirs, biographies, novels and short stories.

The fact is fewer and fewer people are reading newspapers. As a result, many newspapers throughout the country have folded and others are facing disastrous decreases in subscriptions. What, then, can be done to increase readership? For several years, I’ve had a notion that might be worth a try. At least, the idea could be tested on one or two pages of each edition.

Never would I have had the boldness to broach this subject had I not seen an article supporting my idea in none other than The Atlantic, December 2007. Now, you know how many years I’ve been mustering courage to write about this topic. Michael Hirschorn titled his article “The Pleasure Principle,” and in the very first sentence, he asks, “Must the news be boring?” He also writes, “My more sobering conclusion is that readers might no longer need newspapers for news. And by ‘news’ I mean the traditional newspaper functions of reporting on congressional hearings, city-council meetings, sporting events, earnings reports, and so forth. This is now commodity information, available instantly and everywhere, thanks to the wires and more-specialized services.”

If people don’t need newspapers for news, including sports news, then what can fill the gap? Can excellent writers of creative nonfiction or new journalism or whatever other name comes to mind save newspapers? The nature of newspapers has changed so drastically that the very word “newspaper” has become a misnomer. As Hirschorn declares, readers now get news almost as soon as it happens by turning on television, radio or clicking on so many technological gadgets that news in newspapers is neither new nor news.
Near the end of his article, Hirschorn says, “The most e-mailed lists (by readers) suggest that readers will consume meaningful, interesting (and maybe even ‘important’) journalism if they feel compelled, beguiled, seduced.” I agree and here’s my point: Whether editors are trying to sell newspapers or magazines, they must rely on new and repeat subscribers, and the only way they can succeed is to create prose that snag their readers’ attention and hold it to the last word. The only way editors can do that is to find the best writers available, buy their prose and wait for the results.

I readily signed on for two more years of The American Scholar, mailing my check and subscription form. I canceled a couple of subscriptions to other literary magazines because one was politically lopsided, and yet another was — dare I say it? — boring, just dull and lackluster. So there. If I were an editor of a publication depending on subscriptions and someone canceled, I would want to know the reason. Of all the magazines to which I have subscribed and later canceled, not one editor has written to ask why I canceled. Instead of asking why, they send more and more advertisements, renewal forms and special rates — some just for me because I’m among the elite (right).

By the same reasoning, no magazine editor has asked me why I renewed. Here is why I renewed my subscription to The American Scholar. First, I like the editor, Robert Wilson. I have not met him, but he responded to my e-mail, and I thought he was efficient, thoughtful and smart. There is a lesson here. When newspaper readers complain, editors should listen and respond. Here’s another reason I renewed my subscription to The American Scholar. The writing is scholarly, but it is never pretentious as was one I deep-sixed. Oh, yes, the essays and articles are engaging. Each lures me. I am “compelled, beguiled, seduced.”  That is what newspapers (storypapers) should do.


— A retired English professor, Dolly Withrow is a newspaper columnist and the author of four books, including “The Confident Writer” a grammar-based college textbook.


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