Are Personal Narratives Front Page News?

Photo by Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune

   Taking up most of the Sunday Chicago Tribune’s text front page was a personal essay by staff writer William Hageman about the fire that nearly destroyed his home, “No Strangers Here.” Sharing the space with an enterprise story on larger class sizes in area public schools, this was a story that defies traditional definitions of news. And demonstrates precisely a shift in the profession to a reverence for personal narrative.

    Hageman’s well-written and poignant story reads more like a blog entry or journal post than what we traditionally have taught as news and feature stories at the Medill School of Journalism. The timeliness is more elastic, and non-specific. There was only one direct attribution and no other named sources. There was no prominence attached, no major impact or consequence. No costs reported on the fire’s toll. The story had human interest, drama and proximity. And lots at that.  

     It’s not that news did not happen yesterday. There were other stories inside about Obama, healthcare reform, the new lieutenant governor announcement. There were scandal, business and crime stories. But half of the front page was about one person’s story, and one that will likely become viral through Twitter and email. And if people still tack up stories on the refrigerator and send clips to friends through snail mail, I wager this is a candidate.

   This kind of story is exactly what I have been talking and writing about for the last few  years. The worship of  the personal reflects our cultural shift to humanistic journalism.

  What is an interesting twist is you couldn’t find this story so easily on the Web version; you had to click on it, the last in a list of stories after you clicked on “news.” Hegeman’s story was not on the digital home page.

   That’s because the importance of the digital home page and the front page is evaporating. Stories are their own entities, existing not in relation to each other, not even in a parallel presentation. But each story as its own whole, not one of many, not one in the news mix, but a story on its own. The text and web versions of the news mix are not even remotely similar.

     There has been for as long as I can remember the cliche that an announcement is or isn’t “front page news.” What that means is that the tidbit has significant impact and embodies a number of the elements we judge as newsworthiness: prominence, proximity, impact, timeliness, you know the drill. I’m thinking in the future consumers of media will have no idea what it means if anything is really front page news. Because what is front page news anyway?

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