If not for the runaway success of “Serial,” I would be in a state of despair about journalism — and the public’s attitude toward journalism — as we begin 2015. It wasn’t easy to remain optimistic after the Rolling Stone debacle and after a week or so of watching cable news as I traveled for the holidays. (I watch very little TV news because it depresses me, makes me unjustifiably fearful and doesn’t meet my taste standards. I say this with apologies to my friends in broadcast news who I know are often as disillusioned as I am.)
So why does “Serial” give me hope?
Because lots of people loved it. ( I just wasn’t one of those people.) And I’m not surprised. Charles Dickens would have loved it. I see him leaning back in an easy chair, listening and puffing away at a pipe. Or a cigar. All of Dickens’ novels were published serially. Good business sense had a lot to do with it; he was able to build an enormous audience via serialization. He gave people something to talk about over the teapot (the Victorian equivalent of the water cooler). What do you think will happen next?
And they loved him for it.
Not to mention the fact that he was able to describe the plight of the poor in his writing and raise public awareness about the condition of their lives in Victorian England — a worthy journalistic goal.
“Serial” is a reminder that people still love great storytelling, and that’s no great surprise. We bond over stories.
It’s also a transparent process of reporting. People got hooked on it, so it seems, because they were taken along on the twists and turns of the reporter’s journey, although the destination turns out to be unsatisfying.
Most important of all (to me), millions of people who listened to “Serial” learned how sloppy the U.S. justice process can be. Alan Dershowitz has written for The Guardian about what that might mean for Adnan Syed, the man convicted of killing Hae Min Lee.
People are still talking about the podcast, and though not all of what’s being said is positive, the “Serial” phenomenon turned my glass from half-empty to half-full. I’m a little more hopeful than I was in late November when Rolling Stone failed in its duty to its readers and made a sucker out of me.
So my news year resolution is to think even more intensely about the reader and our relationship to that person. If I bother to report something, I have to figure out how to make the reader care. What will achieve that result?
If I’m “just” (ha) telling a good story, what will keep the reader glued to his or her chair and eager for the next turn (of phrase/of the screw/the page)? It’s not necessary to sensationalize a story to make it compelling. That’s amateur hour.
Tell a person a good, true story, and you entertain the hell out of him/her. You can inform him or her about something important in the process. And the next time you have something to say, he or she might just listen.