When Your Newspaper Wishes You ‘Good Morning.’

I’ve been spending most of my time this week looking at the front pages of newspapers. It’s a strange thing, almost, to see so many dailies still printing. Two years ago, after the Rocky Mountain News closed, the prediction was that dozens of daily papers would be gone by now.

But they’re not.

Still, having now sorted through hundreds of front pages lately, I’ve seen an unusual thing happening out in a few small papers out in California, including the Lodi News-Sentinel. Here’s what their front page looked like yesterday.

But let’s zoom in a bit closer, to the bottom left corner of the page:

It’s quirky, yes. But why stop with a little blurb? Why not blow this out into a weekly feature: Readers’ Lives, with profiles of their businesses and families?

What I’m really saying is: Why does a news outlet have to limit itself to quirky stuff like this in order to cultivate the best stories from its community?

I’ve said it before: engage everywhere.

An Open Letter to the PR Firm That Represents AT&T Regarding Potential Dunk Tank Promotional Opportunities.

Dear Fleishman-Hillard,

You’re the PR agency that represents AT&T. They’re one of your biggest clients. They’re also one of the largest companies on the planet, and for the last few years, I have been among the millions of AT&T customers who have come to decide that they are totally screwing me over.

I pay AT&T for both my cellular and Internet service, and I dislike both. Every time my phone loses service, and every time the wireless router at my apartment has a random, unexplained outage, I find myself quietly coveting Verizon, the AT&T competitor who may be just as evil.

I try not to take out my frustrations on AT&T’s customer care representatives. It’s tough to get mad at a kid in a call center on another continent. Sanjay, for anything I’ve said before: I didn’t mean it.

But I would like to vent to someone. And for you, the PR team behind AT&T: I think I’ve got a way for you to offer customer catharsis and win the Internet for a day.

Two words: dunk tank.

Go rent a park, say, the one next to the Golden Gate Bridge. Fly out 10 of your most dissatisfied customers. The ones who’ve said things to Sanjay that they cannot merely repent for on Yom Kippur. The ones who blame AT&T for running their business or their marriage or their lives. The ones who’d rather lick an oil-soaked pelican than say something nice about their iPhone service.

Find those guys. Fly them out to the park, and line them up in front of a dunk tank. Get the AT&T board of directors, and have them sit their turns in it. Let the angry customers finally get our collective revenge on someone within the AT&T family.

Consider the dunk tank a peace offering from AT&T to all of us who feel wronged. The rest of us will thank you for it.

And if you’re looking for someone to cast the first ball, let me know. I might have some dropped-call issues to work out.

Thanks,
Dan

Where Everybody Knows Your Name.

Biloxi is not a town of comfort. It has its simple pleasures — the Waffle House, the Whataburger, the Five Guys — but when it comes to some brand names, head elsewhere. The nearest Bank of America is in New Orleans. So is the nearest Kinkos. When Target opened here, they held a celebration just a notch below Mardi Gras.

But what they lack in brand names, they make up for in service. I stopped by the local print shop today to ask about printing a few copies of this magazine I’ve been working up. I hadn’t been in there since early July, when they’d printed out my new business cards.

So I went in, reintroduced myself — hi, I’m a reporter, in town for a few months, yada yada — and asked if they could do this print job. They couldn’t, but they did suggest a competitor who could.

And as I was walking out, the owner of the store called out, “Good seeing you again, Dan.” The door closed behind me, and I swiveled around and went back inside. “Wait,” I said, stopping the owner before she headed back to her office. “How did you remember my name?”

She looked right back at me. “That’s just what we do,” she said.

So here’s to PDQ Printers in St. Martin, Miss. If you’re in town, stop by and let them know Dan sent you. They’ll know who you’re talking about.

This Was My Favorite Story To Write Here in Biloxi. Please Stop Asking.

In my three months in Biloxi, the question that’s been my “Do you play basketball?” is, “What’s your favorite story from down here?” I’ve been told of miracles and horrors, and I’ve become intimately familiar with the inner workings of both local government and insurance contracts. But my favorite story to write down here didn’t have anything to do with rebuilding homes or fighting BP. It’s about — and my mother could have predicted this for you a few months ago, for the record — football.

Specifically, an ex-football coach I interviewed during my first week in Biloxi. Here’s one of those stories that, in any other journalism job, I don’t find. It’s almost wholly unrelated to the rebuilding efforts in Biloxi, at least at surface level, and its central character isn’t intimately connected to any of the subjects I’ve covered down here(1). No rational boss says, Sure, Dan, spend an hour on a Thursday afternoon talking to a guy who doesn’t have any leads for you.

But here’s a story that I got by 1.) Not being in a rush, and 2.) Being okay with wasting a few minutes and listening. The result: the story that I had the most fun writing.

You can go back to asking me how the weather is up here, Biloxi.

(N.B. The photo above is from a D’Iberville HS football game last month. It has no connection to anything I’ve written above other than that it involves a football.)

  1. e.g.: The insurance industry, BP, business development, gaming, tourism, mental health, egregious lawsuits, et al.

Report: Newsworthy Event Happens During Protest Against Newsworthiness.

The story is meant to be a laugh, right there next to “Fla. Man Punches Shark in the Face, Snaps Photo” and the slightly more straightforward “Playboy Model Detained After Allegedly Trying to Open Plane Door Mid-Flight.”

This one starts, “A Norwegian radio journalist quit on the air after complaining about her job and saying she wouldn’t read the day’s news because ‘nothing important has happened anyway,'” and the rest of it writes itself.

So it’s a laugh. It’s a woman quitting her job in the craziest way possible — a newsman denying the existence of news — and maybe she’s worthy of being sandwiched between shark-punchers and gravity-unaware Playboy models. But any journalist worth his/her reporter’s notebook knows what she’s getting at. We’re coming to a point in our society where we need to ask a question that we should have asked a long time ago:

What is news?

I read a news feed each day — on Facebook. Is that news? I see a ticker of headlines on the bottom of CNN. Is that news? I have headlines and links arriving onto my desktop via my Twitter feed. Is that news? I check the front page of washingtonpost.com each morning. Is the stuff on there news?

What’s happened is, in the last 100 years — better yet, in the last 20! The last 5! — we’ve gone from a finite number of media outlets to an infinite number. On the web, we’ve got infinite space for news. We’ve got 24-hour news networks, and they need something to fill that time. We’ve got websites that need a constant F5-Refresh. The authoritative read on the matter is Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” but the short version is: when we created daily news outlets, we gave consumers a promise: we would deliver them the day’s news. But that means that every day, some form of news has to happen that’s worth delivering. So we’re filling it with what the Norwegian radio reporter probably considers “news”: news of incident, accident or occasion.

On the day she quit, the Norwegian reporter probably looked at the stories she’d been asked to read on air — Man punches shark! Playboy model attempts to open door mid-flight! — and asked, What the hell is this? Is this news?

But what I really wish she’d done is gone on air is asked, What is news anymore? What matters to you?

And if we’re not giving it to you, then why are you still listening?