“You know, the reporting in this newspaper was a whole lot better when we still had reporters.”—Joe Ellis.
Having just returned from a gathering of newspaper folk where a good deal of the (printable) talk had something to do with how newspapers might continue to live long and prosper as we move further into “the digital age,” and having had a little time to consider all that talk, I am now of the opinion, as result of either an epiphany or a stroke, that we might benefit greatly from taking a long look backward.
Indeed, I think perhaps we should at least consider trying something old.
Newspapers, it seems to me, fared better when newspapers were better.
Maybe instead of trying to compete with the 24-hour news channels at what they do and the Internet and what it does—on their levels— we ought to concentrate instead on what we used to do well and maybe, just maybe what folks wish that we still did.
I know, I am a dinosaur and the conventional wisdom is those big lumbering critters were stupid, but turns out, the wicked little velociraptors were pretty smart.
What if we tried doing what we have always done best?
I have a list:
I think newspapers were better when they didn’t put ads on their front pages. I know that the practice has now become ubiquitous within the “new revenue stream” that all the beancounters scream for and I know that most of the ads are just little strips at the top or bottom of the pages, but I just think that there are enough pages in a newspaper on which to put ads big and small, without violating the once sacrosanct Page One.
You see, it is like virginity.
All the rationalization notwithstanding, a little strip across the front page is like a little strip in the back seat of the car. You can fret and strut and wax poetic about maintaining that journalistic purity, but you can’t prove it any more once the deed is done.
And like my old boss quoted above, I believe that newspapers were better before all their reporters turned into “staff writers.”
It seemed like that just happened one day without anyone really knowing from whence or why.
The now apparently relegated to old movie job of reporter used to be one of the most respected ones in all the business, and I don’t know why the industry did away with it.
Tell somebody you are a reporter and want to ask them some questions and there is nary a doubt in that person’s mind—at least about your identity. On the other hand, tell somebody you are a “staff writer,” and he just might start backing up for fear you are contagious.
And, of course, the most screaming irony is that all of these staff “writers,” don’t write nearly as well as the reporters used to do.
I think papers were better when their sports editors were chain-smoking or cigarchomping curmudgeons, who could remember when college kids getting free educations played both offense and defense in return for them, and had actually seen Mickey Mantle swing a bat in real life.
Sports pages used to feature the best writing in most papers, primarily because they were not subject to a bunch of anal retentive copy editors throwing fits at the first sight of an adjective or adverb.
I think newspapers were better when they had Editorial Pages instead of “Opinion Pages,” a wretched concession to the political correctnessspawned notion that all opinions should be equally valued. And they shouldn’t. Papers have devalued the worth of their own informed editorials by equalizing them with the often moronic rantings of folks that everybody else in the village all recognize as being its idiot.
And finally, I think newspapers were better when they had souls.
This one’s a little harder to explain, because a paper’s soul can’t be seen, but rather is felt.
A newspaper’s soul is what sets it apart from others, even if they contain much of the same news. A paper’s soul is the clarity and consistency with which it presents a complex and often senseless world to its readers. A newspaper’s soul is part and parcel of what it does and does not consider fit to print.
A newspaper’s soul, not unlike a human’s, is greater than the sum of its parts. It is its front page and editorial page and local opinion columnists and perhaps most importantly, the way it handles that one painfully pathos-filled story about which you, the reader, actually have personal knowledge.