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Greater Inclusivity and Receptivity

Posted on Sunday, July 29, 2018 at 1:55 PM

Keep your focus and think wider rather than narrower.

By Peter P. Jacobi

The lessons keep coming. They blindside you. They don't go away.

Just days ago, I completed coverage of what's considered a significant musical event locally and in environs, the Bloomington Early Music Festival (BLEMF). For my part, I wrote a pre-event Sunday column about what's to come. I wrote reviews of eleven concerts, skipping only happenings such as a children's instrument petting zoo; a couple of programs devoted to the history of folk music in Bloomington (the town is currently celebrating its 200th anniversary), which is not my area of coverage; and a concert in a martini bar. I then wrote a post-festival column addressing its future.

I am veteran enough and self-critical enough to know that my coverage was good; it was thorough, as complete as it should and could have been, and competently written. And, indeed, I received several messages thanking me for the work. A number of fellow concertgoers came up in days after to add their gratitude. The folks who ran the conference chimed in to cast approval. No one has written in to the newspaper complaining. The paper's arts editor expressed her pleasure about what I turned in.

Biting Questions

So, I'm writing this column about myself, about my own reaction to the coverage.

When, in the quiet, I sat down to skim through the copy as a batch, all sorts of questions occurred to me, actually bit at me. What really had I accomplished, I asked myself. And how? And for whom?

Because a number of the concerts were performed at a clip of two or three a day, I determined to hold length down by compressing single reviews into combinations of two or three. That meant reducing as much as possible what I wrote about single events. I managed to do that, to a point. Where I might have written 400 to 500 words on a given event, I held the copy down to 250 or 300. That alone wasn't easy, in that the programs included numerous items performed by numerous musicians. I could emphasize some over others, but it was wrong, I believed, to eliminate anyone. As a journalist, I felt there was a lot that needed to go in.

So I achieved the problem of content coverage, except when these individual evaluations were added to by one or two more of the same, each package reached 750 to 850 (one time, 900) words.

A swash of print, that comes to. Sure, the musicians would read it start to finish and probably clip. So would the BLEMF management. So would zealots of Early Music who came to the concert and, probably, those who couldn't make it.

Did I Engage as Many Readers as Possible?

I wrote all those words, however, for the Bloomington Herald-Times, a newspaper committed to serving a readership with a myriad of interests and wants and needs and expectations and limitations of patience.

My task was not to engage every reader -- impossible, of course -- but as many readers as possible. Had I done that? Is there the slightest possibility I'd done that? I feared, on contemplation, that I had not.

I captured the expected portions of the readership; I'm pretty sure of this. After all my years of writing for the Herald-Times (it's my 35th year), I have established a following. My failure on this occasion, I fear, is that I lost momentum with those who read the paper but have little or no interest in classical music. There are legions, of course.

Normally, I make the strongest possible effort to arouse interest in the non-initiates. In my Sunday columns, I manage to win interest from the would-be uninterested by offering winning material. Now and then, after reading my reviews when they're of normal length, someone will come up to me and say, "I'm sorry I missed that concert. You made it sound worth having gone to." I do make inroads; people will stop me at the bank or drugstore or grocery (my photo is in the paper every Sunday, so there is recognition) and make comments, from "That was interesting, what you wrote" to "I went to Wednesday night's orchestra concert because you promoted it on Sunday, and I agree totally with what you said." Yes, these casual greetings actually happen.

About my BLEMF coverage, though, no one has stopped me at the bank or drugstore or grocery or on the street.

Under the pressure of getting through the concentration of festival events -- planning for, attending, writing, editing -- I had forgotten the cardinal principle: Know your audience. If you write specialty material for a daily newspaper (or weekly), then you must remember the different audiences in that paper's body of readership. There are readerships, plural. My need is to reach not all, but several. Therefore, in the process of covering any story I must keep in mind, from the start, who is likely to be my reader for this one. How can I handle the information gathering, the designing, the writing to woo folks from as many corners as possible and do so without writing down (bringing annoyance from the top) or writing up (losing those with the least knowledge)?

I can be pretty darned good at that. But I can stumble.

So can you for your newsletter audience. Your readers share an area of common importance, granted. Otherwise, they can differ dramatically. Is what you are covering, then writing, then editing, designed for as many of your readers as possible and as broadly as possible, or are you sticking to that one shared interest, nothing else?

I'd say to not lose focus but to think wider rather than narrower, too. That leads to greater inclusivity and receptivity. Ask yourself such questions before you're blindsided, as was your devoted columnist.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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