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Saturday, December 08, 2007

Oh, no, another man in the street....

By Dick Hirsch
I’ve been waiting impatiently for years for the so-called “man in the street” interviews to disappear from newspapers and TV newscasts, but they just won’t fade away. They continue to be a staple for unimaginative editors seeking to create a limp sidelight for some developing story.

The truth is that such interviews rarely, if ever, produce any worthwhile comments. Think about it: have you ever once heard a man (or woman) who was approached at random give a meaningful response to a question? The editors all know what to expect---not much---but they insist on following that approach because, well, it has become an established tradition. I call it a cliché. When you cannot think of a better idea, assign a reporter to leave the office, often accompanied by a photographer, and spend time asking some unsuspecting duffus for an opinion. Among their favorite prospects have always been cab drivers, traffic cops, bartenders and attractive women.

Hey, don’t misunderstand; I respect the views of others and have conducted hundreds of interviews during my career. But all the interviewees either had some prior notice that they were going to be questioned, or else they were involved in some specific story which would form the basis of the questions. I’ve occasionally been asked for advice by business executives and some public officials about how to react when phoned by a reporter seeking an opinion on an issue. I always tell them the same thing: explain that you are in a meeting and will call back. Then take a little time to think about the answer.

I raise the man in the street issue because of the recent introduction of a “new” feature at the Buffalo News, which is still the major window on the world for many people in the area. Daily papers continue to be in a crisis mode, faced with declining circulation and shrinking advertising revenue, and they are seeking imaginative ways to change their content to make themselves more competitive with the Internet and 24/7 cable news.

So what does the News give us as part of their prescription to enhance the paper? Why, golly, it’s a weekly space filler called “Pop Quiz,” which presents the results of man in the street interviews, along with photos of the five interviewees. The first question: ”Have high gas prices changed your driving habits?” For the edition published on Thanksgiving Day, the News asked: “What are you most thankful for this holiday season?” These are really tough questions, designed to engender provocative answers, aren’t they? I wonder who thinks them up.

The only thing that Pop Quiz demonstrates is the accuracy of certain old axioms which provide that “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” or “There is nothing new under the sun.”

What we really are dealing with here is a “new” feature which was introduced in the 1940s and became a staple in countless newspapers for many years, when it was known as “The Inquiring Reporter.” The New York Daily News had such a column, as did the Courier-Express, although in Buffalo it was spelled “Enquiring,” as a kind of tribute to the Buffalo Enquirer, one of the 19th century newspapers that was a Courier-Express ancestor. Those columns appeared not just weekly but every day and their sole purpose was to attract the attention of readers who would check it to see whether any friends or acquaintances were pictured and featured in the paper that day.

The assignment was regarded by most reporters as beneath their professional dignity and qualifications. It was simple work, yet turning out seven columns a week was somewhat daunting. In the early days the editors passed the job around, usually handing it to recent hires. I had the assignment just once, but all my photos either had the top of heads cut off or were out of focus. Strange, isn’t it? I had excellent photo results both before and since that day, but, as a result of my performance I never again had to worry about that assignment.

The Enquiring Reporter eventually became the regular assignment of one reporter. These were usually people who had established a reputation for having difficulty writing an acceptable news story. But that was all long ago. After many years, the feature was dumped. Who could have predicted it would be resurrected?

In the enduring spirit of the man in the street, let’s conclude with a question: Is this “new” feature likely to make the newspaper more appealing?



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