With the possible exception of the weather, newspapers and television news stations probably don’t cover anything else quite as thoroughly as they do crime stories. That’s because they know it drives clicks or sales. And I bet the reason a murder story is popular is that it has the most character details compared to all the other stories.
Around 2008 or 2009, I lunched with a newspaper editor. I was trying to persuade them to hire me to do a website redesign for them, but we also talked about the future of journalism. In 2008 the future was pretty easy to see because national newspapers with broad appeal had started to crumple under the pressures of mobile internet, social media, and changes in reporting.
But for this newspaper editor, those problems were still years away. Still, “Why do so many of the stories that appear at a local level involve petty crimes? Isn’t an investigation into government spending or a school board meeting far more important?” I wondered. “Isn’t that what people say they want?”
“It is, but crime and grime sells,” they replied.
And there it was. “Crime and grime sells”. They were a business, and while intellectually they knew it was important to cover the local school board meeting and keep a close eye on government balance sheets, they knew from newsstand sales—which still accounted for about half of their revenue—that crime stories moved product.
Now, thirteen years later, I keep thinking about that conversation. Their website is still the same, but I don’t care so much about that anymore. I’m much more interested in why a crime story about someone’s DUI or small drug bust gets more attention than, say, a story about an honor roll student. In either instance, a reader likely does not know the subject, nor is the reader impacted by the subject unless the crime happened to them or someone close to them, or likewise if they’re a family member of the honor roll student.
The newspaper or broadcast is not the product. It’s the vehicle that drives revenue, sure, but the stories inside are the product. The newspaper is more like an “ecosystem”. It’s a collection of products bundled together.
And each of those individual products has to compete for attention, time, and space in the reader’s day—often against or in social media and other forms of media.
Crime-and-grime narratives generally have a story and complex characters. Everything else does not (again, with possible exception of a weather-related disaster which is itself a sort of “grime” story).
A typical crime story sounds something like:
Police are investigating a robbery at the Kwik-E-Mart. Police believe an armed male, age 30-35, smashed through a window in the rear of the store. Once inside, the bandit realized the 24-hour store’s front door was open. He then tied up the cashier, Apu, before taking the entire contents of the register and a Slim Jim.
It’s a very journalistic example, but it tells a story. You have a person, you can imagine what they did to get in, what happened next, and it makes you wonder why they took the Slim Jim.
Compared to a story about an honor roll student:
Springfield Elementary announced today that Lisa Simpson and Martin Prince were again the only two second-grade honor students this year. Principal Seymour Skinner said, “We’re very proud of Lisa and Martin and their efforts to raise the school’s average GPA above state minimums.”
Again, a very journalistic piece, but it has no story. What did Lisa and Martin do, exactly? What’s the larger context. You can make some assumptions, like that they study hard, but that’s not a story. You’re just making guesses.
I’m convinced newspapers and television stations would do well to devote all their attention to making as many stories as possible into narrative stories, not just reports.
This piece in the IndyStar on diluted voting power of Black Hoosiers by Kaitlin Lange opens with a great lede:
When Shunte Oliver looks out from the front porch of the home she owns in the Warren Park area, she sees plenty of room for improvement.
Oliver, 50, has lived in her house for 16 years, but recently, she said, crime has spiraled in the area on the east side. She worries about the safety of the children attending the school just down the street, and no longer feels like she can go for leisurely walks.
Oliver says it feels like state lawmakers have forgotten about the area.
“The crime has just picked up, and all you do is hear about it on the news, but you don’t hear anybody coming out saying what they’re going to try and do, or what we need to do or what we can do,” said Oliver, who IndyStar talked to while going door-to-door in the area. “It’s just like they kind of forget about this area.”
The piece is lengthy and well worth a read, but as an individual product works well. We can imagine this woman—who we see in photos—on a porch, we have a sense of who she is, where she comes from, why this issue is important to her, and it builds some tension. In this case, framing “what to do” as a problem and lawmakers as a sort of villain (I use that word loosely). If I had to quibble and space was no concern, I wish we could read about what, exactly, she’s looking out on. Is the sidewalk crumbling? Does the road have two lanes and sound noisy? Do cars rattle by with loud speakers?
Lauren Kostiuk at WTHR has another example, albeit shorter:
It’s something IMPD Ofc. Jeff Stagg didn’t think anyone would notice.
“There are pieces of jewelry here and as you’ve seen I’ve tried to keep the trash picked up because trash just blows around here,” Stagg said.
A couple of weeks ago, Kaleb Hall drove by and took a video of Stagg cleaning up a street corner on the city’s southwest side. He later posted the video to TikTok.
“You don’t see this a lot. There is a cop over there picking up trash,” Hall said in the video.
Hall stopped to thank the officer.
While recording their conversation, he discovered there was a memorial on that corner for a young woman named Shelby.
Stagg explained the woman was killed by a drunk driver at the intersection of Rockville Road and Lyndhurst Drive about 20 years ago.
Also on WTHR is an example that fails:
Metro police are investigating a shooting that left a two-year-old boy in critical condition
Police responded to the home in the 3500 block of Cecil Avenue around 6 p.m. Wednesday.
An officer that arrived to find the boy wounded by an apparent gunshot and gave medical aid until EMS arrived
The child was taken to Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health, where police said he is in critical condition
Police at the scene believe the shooting was accidental, but the investigation is ongoing.
No one else at the home was hurt.
I get that it’s early in the investigation, but as an individual product, this isn’t helpful. It’s an unfinished product that shouldn’t have been released. It tells no useful story and doesn’t bother to give context about the 3500 block of Cecil Ave. For one, where is it? That’s something I doubt anyone in the city except the people that live there could point to on a map.
Crime and grime might move newspapers or drive clicks, but it’s only because more than half the time they lead a reporter into a complete narrative story by default. Just about any news piece can do the same, but it requires care and extra time. I know journalists are stretched thin to do and this adds a new layer of complexity. But it’s worth pursuing in the name of good journalism and good storytelling. Some are already doing this and we should support them in those efforts.