What makes a story newsworthy? Impact, relevance and timeliness are at the top of the list. But editors also love novelty. Often this desire for man bites dog devolves an approval of the apparently curious. Why this is a problem -- other than the fact that shrinking newshole is being devoted to what can be meaningless content -- is that often these novel stories aren't as odd as they seem. It's just that the surface-level oddity tricks the reporter from digging a little deeper.
Without a question, I've made this mistake. And I think the Associated Press did it in this story about the large proportion of Jews comprising the population at a Lutheran liberal arts school. Here's the lede:
One of the hottest college campuses in the U.S. for Jewish students is also one of the unlikeliest: a small Lutheran school erected around a soaring stone chapel with a cross on top.
In what is being called a testament to word of mouth in the Jewish community, approximately 34 percent of Muhlenberg College's 2,200 students are Jewish. And the biggest gains have come in the past five years or so.
Perhaps equally noteworthy is how Muhlenberg has responded: offering a kosher menu at the student union, creating a partnership with the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and expanding its Hillel House, a social hub for Jews.
"What makes us stand out is that we actually enjoy our diversity," said Randy Helm, the college's president, an Episcopalian. "Our close-knit community has embraced differences rather than pulling into its shell or fracturing along religious, ethnic or other lines."
So I guess we should also be surprised that Jewish students go to Princeton and that non-Jews go to Brandeis. Similarly, Chapman University, which is affiliated with the Disciples of Christ, offers a minor in gay and lesbian studies and I've been told by friends who attended that LGBT students have a large population.
Why would this surprise readers, or the reporter for that matter? Particularly with the mention that the college president is an Episcopalian and that the school as a broad ecumenical feel anyway. The story notes that this school is only tangentially connected to a church in Lutheran spectrum, without noting that is the more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The story also notes:
The campus chapel is used to this day for both worship and annual student convocations. But there are no required religion classes, and there is no mandatory church attendance.
Here's another question: Would traditional LUTHERANS feel comfortable at this college?
At least in part, students with common interests and worldviews tend to end up at the same colleges for the same reasons that new U.S. immigrants settle in clustered communities: They may already know people there and they are likely to build a new social and communal network of like-minded people with common experiences.
That doesn't mean the AP's story isn't interesting or newsworthy. In fact, I really enjoyed learning about Muhlenberg and how this community of Jewish students has swelled in recent years. But it's not that unlikely.