You'll have to forgive us veterans of the newspaper business, but certain days -- especially Mondays for some reason -- are just self-referential days. Something in us wants to say to readers, "But enough about you."
We wake up way more concerned with ourselves than anybody else out there. And as I say, please forgive us. We work in a dying industry. Well, OK, if it's not dying, it sure as hell is suffering some major amputations.
This morning's New York Times has a story on the business front about how great it is to work for a daily newspaper owned by Warren Buffet, offering what I guess somebody thinks is encouraging news about how Buffet's newspapers aren't dead yet. But then I turn the page. Here is a photo of the morning news meeting at The Buffalo News, and ... yikes! I count seven people at the table.
To me, that's the kind of news meeting you might have at a major daily if the Black Plague had broken out in the building. I never saw a news meeting in my own years working for dailies with fewer than than 20 people either at the table or in second-tier chairs against the wall.
But that's the point, is it not? The Black Plague did break out. Only it's called the Plague of Nobody Wants to Read It Any More.
In the same section of the same newspaper, media columnist David Carr has a truly upbeat story about print journalism, only not the print kind.
Carr's piece is about the stunning growth of digital media. Carr, by the way, by the way, comes from our neck of the woods -- the news weekly business -- not the dailies. It's no accident that he often offers sharper insights than you get from media critics who are traditional daily print newspaper people. He writes about what's going on in what I guess we should by now call word journalism, print and digital.
My own kvetch about the dailies is this: I worked for a guy in the dailies in the early '70s who predicted every single thing that has happened to dailies since. This was at The Detroit Free Press, which was really a great newspaper then and a model for experiments elsewhere.
Kurt Luedtke was executive editor when he was still in his early 30s -- a baby by the standards of the industry then. He was the first person I ever knew who was a student of readership, at a time when most people in the business thought, "What's to say about readers? They read, right?"
Wrong. Not for long, Luedtke said.
This was a time when newspaper people still insisted smugly that television was dumb and watching it made people dumber. Since then the lesson of time has been the contrary. More news, more pictures, more sounds, more nuance: All of that is more information, and more information makes people smarter, not dumber -- more sophisticated and less easily amused.
Luedtke was a great two-fisted journalist -- a Pulitzer Prize winner -- but he also insisted that the industry was locked in a 1950s writing template that was boring the audience. Our problem was that we were dumber than our readers, not smugly smarter.
He was serious about reporting, but he was more serious about writing. The way you get readers, he said, was by giving them a very good read. And a very good read comes only from very good writing.
By the way, he got tired of the daily newspaper business and went to Hollywood eventually, where he won an Oscar for his first screenplay, a movie called Absence of Malice, about a dumb daily newspaper.
His formula in the newspaper business was extremely successful in the marketplace in Detroit. But I don't even want to talk about what the corporate owners of the Freep did with that paper. They were more interested in getting into a monopoly printing and advertising deal with the competing paper than they were in competing. Long sad tale of decline.
In fact, since then every single thing I have seen the dailies do has been basically some new iteration of the same old post-World War II culture of daily newspapers: more government coverage written in an industrial argot so dense that a newcomer needs a pocket translation dictionary.
"SOLONS SAY NTTA/NCTCOG AD VALOREM PROJECTIONS SKEWED. Blame Regression Algorithm."
I read an interesting book a few years ago about why young people don't read dailies. The author interviewed a college student who said he tried to read the dailies but it was always like a starting a real hard math class in which he had already missed the first three weeks.
This is an audience business. That's not a good way to sell tickets.
As for the digital thing, I find it very interesting. I know it's very important. Hey, here I am, doin' it, OK? But I think of it as an extremely significant shake-up in the circulation department.
I used to crank out these words, and they sent them to the back-shop, set them in type, printed them with ink on paper, folded up the papers, loaded them onto pie-wagon trucks and shipped them out to people's lawns. Now they ship them out as electrical impulses. I would find all of that even more fascinating if I worked in the circulation department.
But I don't. I work on the word production line. And here it's all a question of coming up with words that readers want to read.
Now I'm going to get revoltingly self-referential and tell you I find it ironic, hilarious and infuriating that people in the daily business who are supposed to think about this stuff almost never turn their heads a quarter crank to look at the cadre within the word journalism business that does seem to have a handle on it.
Us. The weeklies. Right now as far as I can tell, we are the daylight. People read us. We know how to write for the new audience.
Carr's piece today about the big digital buzz is all about Huff Post, a topic fully worthy of notice. But, c'mon. They're aggregators.
In all of this I have learned one big thing. An industry cannot escape its culture, even to save its life. An industrial culture is a solipsistic universe, and apparently nobody inside ever has a telescope that can see outside.
There. I feel all better. Why better? Hey, let me ask you something. If you were in the word business, and every single indication was that people out there want more and better words, why would you be anything but optimistic?
It's like shoes. They don't want the black buckle-ups any more, but they do want the hell out of the slip-ons. So what are we gonna crank out today, people? (Daily newspaper answer: "Uh. ... Wait, I'm thinkin' here. More buckle-ups?")
All done. Tomorrow, it'll be all about you, all day long.
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