There is nothing that so disturbs someone as when you mess with their routine. I learned this two times over when newspapers I was working for changed the placement of certain financial information.

If you print foreign exchange rates on page 5 of the Business section of the metro daily, by gum, you’d better keep it there forever.

There’s a hilarious message that was among hundreds left on the main voice mailbox of the Business desk a few years ago when the U-T cut its stock pages back. The change reduced the actual information very little, but nonetheless screwed up certain people’s routine of looking at their stocks in the same place each morning.

The caller, who sounded uncannily like Abe Simpson, admonishes the Union-Tribune editors to “throw it off the top of the building.”

“AND YOU JUMP WITH IT!” the man yells.

That one got passed around the newsroom; it was legendary.

It was also totally expected; there was a whole plan in place to handle the flood of angry calls responding to a very sensible decision to consolidate the stock listings and save several pages of newsprint.

I think there might be a phone bank of little old ladies who fight change at the nation’s newspapers. I can’t tell you how many little old ladies who wanted to check their Ford stock that I personally talked down from the ledge when the operator randomly selected me for a complaint call. (Sadly, their distress was not over having invested in Ford.) At the heart of the newspaper’s decision was: How many people are left in San Diego that have only the newspaper to check their stock movement n and do you keep up the expensive production for something that’s a service to so few people? Contrary to stereotypes, a lot of the little old ladies I spoke to had Internet access. I told them how to look up their stocks on Yahoo Finance, and they were pretty pleased in the end. (Note to Boy Scouts: Ditch the street-crossing, go for Internet seminars.) But people have their daily routines that they’re comfortable with, and they don’t need to sit down with their coffee and corn flakes and open the paper to find those blankety-blanks at the newspaper have gone and changed the &$@%ing stock pages. (Some callers had really foul mouths.) For the past 50 years, Americans have been accustomed to receiving a paper on their front lawn, and between that and nightly network news, we were all, so to speak, on the same page about a story. We were all drinking basically the same blend.

This has created a format to the news story, parameters that we all unconsciously accept. When it comes to framing public policy, these parameters are enormously influential but for the most part unexamined.

Here’s how it works: Every story has a setup, gathering conflict, a climax and a conclusion. That’s right n news coverage of anything of civic importance follows the same narrative arc.

Aside from the fact that it’s about a most unglamorous topic, the pension debacle is a formulaic Hollywood script: A group of nefarious individuals hatch a scheme for their own enrichment, egged on by a powerful duo in the shadows. One lone, brave soul refuses to take part and steps forth to expose the duplicity. At first, she can get no one to believe her. The schemers discredit her, and it looks like they’ll get away with it. But then! A chain of events reveal she was right all along. She gets her due. She is the hero. The mayor lauds her in his speeches, The council that once turned their backs on her now applaud her.

You can almost hear the trailer: “… a story of courage – and redemption.”

Up next: How does this narrative arc affect news coverage?


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