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US journalists says newspapers are doomed if readers don't get what they want

By unknown | Apr 13, 2007 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

He strolls onto the stage like a prize fighter badly in need of the fistic game's biggest crown. He's pumped up.

He strolls onto the stage like a prize fighter badly in need of the fistic game's biggest crown. He's pumped up.

For the next hour or so he pummels us, his students, with anecdotes of human folly. He badgers us with stories of man's cruelty to man so sad, so inhuman and depraved as to make eyes moisten and hearts beat faster.

Here is just but one horror he exported from the cold waters of Florida, US, into the pristine interior of the Hackle Brooke Estate's conference room in Randburg, north of Jo'burg.

Sometime in the 1990s, a mother kissed her husband goodbye. Her two daughters did the same to their father.

They where going on a well- deserved and well-planned holiday. They never returned.

Later their bodies were fished out of a lake. French wrote about what unfolded in court as their deaths were sketched out.

"Looking back at the case, we are drawn, again and again, to that night. The boat rocks under our feet. The ropes cut into our hands and tighten about our necks. The bay stretches about us, looking cold, so deep, so unforgivably black."

This narrative, serialised as Angels & Demons in his newspaper, won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1998.

Thomas French, invited to these shores by Paula Fray & Associates, a Johannesburg- based media and communicators training outfit, peeled away the cobwebs from the eyes of media practitioners in this country.

His influential lectures may just redefine how we prepare our menus for our readers in the not so distant future.

When French is done, we lift ourselves from the emotional floor, dust ourselves off, shake our heads and give him the biggest applause we can remember giving a teacher.

But like masochists we come back for Round Two, expecting him to sock it to us some more.

Only this time, he takes us by the hand and leads us to the magical garden of journalism, where every flower has a vivid colour and every stream flows with the wisdom of good narrative.

From the horrors of the murders, he gently coaxes us back into the human drama, giving us a glimpse of the human face of the dedicated cops who eventually cracked the Rogers case and made sure that the murderer, Oba Chandler, was convicted and sentenced to hang.

"One year had gone since the murders," he writes, "and then another, and now the investigators were deep into a third.

"They were working day and night, working weekends, putting off vacations, losing weight, gaining weight, growing pale and pasty and haggard, waking at 3am with a jolt and scratching notes on pads beside their beds."

In Johannesburg, he tells us, senior and middle newsroom managers, that readers have evolved and that newspapers are under attack from new sources of news such as the Internet, iPods and cellphones.

He tells us that narrative precedes journalism as we know it.

"We in the news business will lose readers if we don't write as our readers speak. We talk about them and put words into their mouths," he says.

He teaches us to zoom in. To find a human focus and, if we can, try to gain altitude. Rise above the rubble, above the devastation, both physical and emotional, and find the deeper meaning rippling through all our lives.

And where newspaper editors and publishers around the world complain of declining sales and the youth's lack of interest in the traditional sources of news, French differs.

He cites the global phenomenon of the Harry Potter series as an example.

"We don't give our young readers what they want, and that's the source of our problems," he says.

"Every time a Harry Potter book hits the market, the global youth market goes shopping," he says.

"It shows that young people can buy newspapers and books if we give them what they want."

For a man who came to South Africa in awe of this, the world's "miracle nation" with a constitution that is the envy of many and the associated freedoms of the press, he was horrified to hear that journalists can only speak to police spin doctors far removed from scenes of crimes, for instance.

"But then, how do you guys operate in such an environment?" he asks dumbfounded.

But who is Thomas French anyway?

He's not journalism's almighty. Far from it. He is just a staff writer on the St. Petersburg Times, an American newspaper with some 300 staff members, a couple of offices scattered around the world and a sometime visiting lecturer at the famed Poynter Institute in St Petersburg, Florida in the US.

He has a great respect for a number of American journalists, who he openly looks up to. He is somewhat shy and modest and admits to a paralysing fear every time he submits his copy.

But Tom is also a damned good narrative, feature and "immersion" writer and lecturer. And he's also a trying to be a good father to his two sons.

After winning the Pulitzer, some big newspapers tried to lure him into their newsrooms elsewhere in the US. He politely declined because his boys live in St Petersburg and he wanted to see them grow up.

A few centimetres taller than Baby Jake Matlala and a lot heavier, French carries some excess weight.

His lifelong Tao, or philosophy, is to avoid "the suits" like the plague, preferring to source his news and comments from ordinary men and women on the ground with first-hand accounts of the news.

He has no desire to become a war correspondent in Baghdad or cover the White House, for instance. He'd rather write a sweet and illuminating story of a father teaching his daughter how to ride a bicycle. It is a metaphorical story of life's lessons.

Power play doesn't appeal to Tom French.

He finds politicians, celebrities and serial killers a pretentious lot; chameleons who act out how they want the world to perceive them.

His dislike for "the suits" is translated into his dress sense and the way he carries himself. He prefers functional wash 'n wear gear.

French is driven.

He's the kind of writer who attacks any assignment with the single-mindedness of a zealot and the tenacity of a bull terrier.

He spent three months at an American high school, "zooming in" on and "immersing" himself in the life of a 13-year-old girl.

Through her, he captured the essence, the exuberance, the fear, loves, demons, hopes, crudeness and beauty of youth like few writers before him.

Keith Woods, the dean of the Poynter Institute, has this to say of French "Tom brings to his teaching a genuine curiosity and the kind of reflection and analysis that makes magical writing seem achievable.

"Whenever he speaks, I'm compelled to grab a pen and start taking notes."


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