Tuesday, March 13, 2012
Flattering the Man on the Street
The San Francisco Chronicle of the 1970s was probably best known as a punch line in the movie All The President’s Men. Playing Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee in that film, Jason Robards, Jr., was pitched an idea for a new-age feature of some type and he replied by saying, “Tell ‘em to take it to the San Francisco Chronicle.”
The joke was not without basis (otherwise it wouldn’t have worked, right?), but the reality was that the much-pilloried Chronicle of that time was a good and lively paper in its own way. The way just didn’t happen to be that of the Post or the New York Times.
It was a paper with world-class columnists: Herb Caen (who later won a special Pulitzer), Charles McCabe, and Art Hoppe. If it didn’t have a lot of in-depth investigative reporting, it nevertheless covered the news in a lively and entertaining fashion. The headlines and writing were sharp, and it got the details right in a lot of ways.
I was reminded of that recently when I had coffee with a friend and business colleague, and he made a remark about how inane one of the local paper’s person-on-the street columns was. An ordinary reader probably thinks there’s nothing to doing such a column: Just go some place with a lot of foot traffic, ask the same question of five or six people, then come back to the office and write it up. Piece of cake. The ordinary reader would be badly mistaken.
In the time period I speak of, the Chronicle had a superb practitioner of this type of piece. The column was called Question Man, and its author listed only as O’Hara. Much later, I learned that O’Hara, the question man, was actually a woman. That makes sense because two of the qualities needed to do the job right are an ability to put people at ease and an ability to listen well and hear what people are really saying. Women often do those things well.
To get a compelling person-on-the-street column, you have to come up with a well phrased question and put it to more people than the number who will appear in the column. Some people are vapid, inarticulate, or both. There are those who would say such subjects should be included in the column, as they are representative of the population at large. I disagree. The newspaper’s space and its readers’ time are too valuable to be wasted on inanity.
Nor is it enough, in all cases, to simply ask a question and let the subject talk. A good interviewer working on this kind of piece will ask good follow-up questions to elicit additional response and to help the interviewee, who typically is not used to talking with the media, articulate the point he or she is trying to make. That holds true whether the question is about Watergate or something as simple as what are you having for lunch today.
After interviewing enough people, the columnist has to pull take a 500-word answer and editing it down to 75 words or so that capture the gist and sting of what the person was saying, and convey a sense of the person’s voice. Even the order in which the answers are arranged is important; if the reader sees variety and interest in the utterances, he or she will keep reading. I’ve never seen this type of column done as well as O’Hara did it, just as I’ve never seen an item column as good as Herb Caen’s. There’s no substitute for instinct and talent, and in flattering her subjects, O’Hara satisfied her readers.