I will return to this theme often: Having said all that journalists’ sacred role in a democracy, our first responsibility is to entertain. What seems to set really good non-fiction and journalistic writing apart is the creation of whole, three-dimensional, empathetic characters. Readers don’t care about issues as much as they care about people. They want to see themselves in the people about whom they’re reading. They acquire their understanding of the issue at hand as a by-product. If the piece doesn’t entertain, the reader will stop reading part way through, and all the work you did reporting and writing the portion below there will be wasted.
Say you’re writing a longish piece about a particular patch of forest land that is about to be bulldozed for development. You will, of course, make the rounds to the opponents — the developers, the local government officials, the people who live in or near the forest. But if the Developer in your piece — capital D — is nothing but a two-dimensional fount of business-speak, and if the Environmentalist — capital E –is nothing but a one-note pluckster on the beauty of the ecosystem, the piece will be flat and forgettable. Somehow, you’ve got to convey that this developer is a real person, with a complicated worldview and set of life experiences that leads him to want to bulldoze the forest. Ditto the environmentalist and the others. By the time we get to their roles in this drama, their behavior has to make emotional sense, same as if you were writing a novel. So you’ve got to get them to open up to you, to bare their souls and show their vulnerabilities. The question is, how do you do that?