The Tyranny of the News Hook

Here’s one of many hard lessons I’ve learned as a writer publishing primarily online: You can pen a gorgeous piece about some timeless topic—parenting or faith or health or grief. And if your piece doesn’t have a news hook—if it doesn’t mention some hot topic in the news up front and then go on to make some point about said news item—many (most?) editors aren’t interested.

I get it. It’s a loud, nonstop world out there, information flying at us like bugs toward a windshield. People need a reason to stop stalking ex-loves on Facebook or playing Angry Birds long enough to read 800 words or so, and maybe ponder them for, oh, two or three minutes. The news hook gives them a reason.

But I’m fed up with the news hook.

In case you haven’t noticed, reproductive issues have been in the news a lot recently: Planned Parenthood vs. Susan G. Komen, Roman Catholic bishops and contraception, Rick Santorum and prenatal testing, vaginal ultrasounds and abortion and rape.

Readers and friends have filled my inbox and Facebook page with links to articles on these stories and more. And I have read many of them, often because I’m interested but often because I feel like I should. This is my topic—one of them anyway. And I should care about the latest news. Furthermore, conventional writing wisdom says I should be on the lookout for precious nuggets of information that I can use as news hooks for my own posts and articles.

But I have become more and more reluctant to click through to read the words on the other end of all those links. And even more reluctant to use any of these stories as news hooks.

As blogger after blogger, journalist after journalist, writer after writer has weighed in on abortion and rape and prenatal testing and contraception, I have become less and less convinced of the value of news hooks. I have begun to wonder if the relentless seeking after the perfect hook is making the blogosphere less relevant and useful, and more noisy and contentious.

First, news hooks often just give writers an excuse to write the same-old same-old. When I see that Writer X, whose work I am familiar with, is writing about Issue Y, I can often guess without reading more than the headline what he or she is going to say. Instead of providing fodder for new conversations and spurring writers to say something fresh and original, news hooks often end up being a handy tool for writers to once again make their (our) favorite arguments. The result? Warring bands of articles blaring familiar positions on hot-button issues, contributing to a cultural discourse that is more focused on coming up with clever zingers that like-minded folk can tweet to their followers than on conversation and consensus.

Using a news hook to reiterate one’s opinion is not necessarily a terrible thing. While my faithful blog readers and friends can probably guess how I’ll respond to some news story, there are millions of readers who have no idea who I am or what I might say. For those readers, my same-old same-old take on Issue Y might be fresh and new. They will gain new perspective, and I’ll gain a new reader.

But I see how easily the day’s news becomes something we use to further our own agendas. We begin to see the events of the nation and the world primarily through our own self-serving lenses. That can’t be a good thing.

Second, relying on news hooks makes our writing disposable. The fly-by-night nature of the blogosphere is the blessing and bane of being a writer today. With so many sites seeking nonstop new content, writers have unprecedented access to an audience. Anyone with writing talent, thick skin, tenacity, and a willingness to work really hard has the opportunity to get their work published. When some topic becomes a hot news hook, editors are on the lookout for experts in that topic.

The down side of this constant content-seeking is that our writing has a very short shelf life. Once the news story passes into oblivion, so does whatever we wrote about it. Sure, it may continue to get occasional hits from someone Googling the topic, or when a similar news story surfaces. But by and large, a blog post, even on a major news site, is ancient history within a week or two.

Again, this is not necessarily a terrible thing. It’s the environment within which journalists have always worked. But it also means that we writers have little incentive to produce something timeless, in the way that a novel or poetry or a killer nonfiction essay can be timeless. It makes us more like carpenters, cobbling together a bunch of words to create something utilitarian, rather than artists, using words to make sense of this crazy world, to spur change in ourselves and others, to give comfort or challenge or inspiration.

I don’t mind being a carpenter most of the time. For many writers, carpentry is what pays the bills. But I’m striving to be an artist too. I’d like to write stuff that isn’t disposable.

And when it comes to other people’s writing, I’d much rather read a work of art than something they banged together, using their stock tools and materials, in response to a news hook. Art moves me. Art changes me. Art makes me say to people, “Did you read this?! This is amazing.” Art sticks with me.

Even in the rapid-fire, news-oriented blogosphere, writers can produce art. I occasionally fish around in my files or on Google for a blog post I read several years ago, and find that it still makes my heart clench and my eyes tear. A few of my own posts are, I think, worthy of repetition, timeless in their own way. (My “Best Thing Blog Hop” arose out of a desire to give other bloggers an opportunity to share something really great and potentially timeless that they wrote.)

The news hook isn’t going anywhere. But if we writers want to move and change and challenge and inspire people (and more practically, if we want people to really read and ponder and revisit what we churn out day after day), we need to go beyond the news hook to write about grief and joy, justice and mercy, love and loss—the timeless things that remain after the day’s news is history. And maybe avoid responding to the latest big news story unless we have something truly original to say that will nudge both us and our readers out of complacently repeating the same old arguments and toward actual conversation. Maybe even change.

 

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • http://eatwithjoy.org Rachel Stone

    I was feeling frustrated by this just yesterday. I want more time to not be so…timely. I want to write stuff with a long shelf life, too. How to do it? I don’t really know.

  • http://theradicaljourney.com/2012/03/19/why-worry-about-women/ Tim

    Love this insight, Ellen:“And maybe avoid responding to the latest big news story unless we have something truly original to say.”

    This happened to me just this morning as I was driving to work. I was listening to the news about the Neighborhood Watch shooting in Florida and thought, “How does this fit in with God’s call to his people to build his kingdom? … I wonder if there’s a blog post in this?” Then I realized I really didn’t have anything significant to offer on the subject. I also realize that this is a reflection of my own limitations, not the importance of the subject.

    Tim

    P.S. Do you remember Herb Caen and Mike Royko? Those were a pair of journalists who could make the mundane sing. I wanna sing once in a while too.

  • http://www.hispaththroughthewilderness.blogspot.com Marlena Graves

    Ellen,

    I agree with everything you said. My non-news hooky personal blog suffers for that reason. But, hey! I do think of my writing as a work of art–especially sermons and the manuscripts I am working on. But for other venues, I try to make whatever I write as much a work of art as I can given the restrictions.

    Like I said, you are right on! I felt that way about my last Her.meneutics post about lament and the school shooting.

  • http://www.hgscott.com Halee

    Ellen,

    Superb thinking. There is so much wisdom in this post. At first, I wanted the news hook because I think for too long Christian women have given the intellectual and critical cultural dialogue over to men. But I don’t think all writing should be news-hooky. I’ve definitely been frustrated more than once on this issue. I’ve been so slow gearing up my own blog because I’m spending so much time (time not occupied with a 3 year old and an 8 month old, that is) pondering the theology of the blog. Is it wise to spend so much of our time, precious, little time, on blogs and topics that are here today and gone tomorrow? Or ought Christians focus more on books, on content that will stay on shelves for years to come?

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      Great questions, Halee. I once went to hear author Kelly Corrigan speak (she is a favorite of mine). She said someone (agent? editor? not sure) had told her to concentrate her effort on work that will last, namely books. She was even cautioning her not to do too much magazine writing, which to me is at least a bit less disposable than blogging. Although magazines get recycled while blog posts do remain accessible pretty much forever. I know this is the world we’re living and working in. But I do wonder about it’s long-term value. I’ve been blogging 4-5 days a week now for about three months, because all of the powers that be say that regular blogging is key to gaining a readership. But it takes a lot of time. And I do sometimes wonder if it’s the best use of my time and talent.

      Also like your point, though, about women’s news commentary being a refreshing change from cultural dialogue dominated by men.

      Thanks for adding to the conversation.


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