Friday, September 30, 2005
Uh-oh. I should know better. Especially with new owners in the wings. But sometimes my fat yap just starts flapping, because I think I have something to say. Maybe I do. Maybe I don't. You be the judge. I think:
Newspapers are not dead. They're just in need of more medicine.
"Paper," not "news," is the most important part of the word "newspaper." What I mean is, the business needs to go back to square one and ask: I have these blank pages ... what is the most interesting and compelling stuff I can put on them? Often the answer is not news. Seriously, what in the world would you most like to see? Besides tomorrow's lottery numbers. Bet it isn't strings of paragraphs about who got shot last night or who got promoted at a widget factory across town -- unless you know the people named. I want to know how the universe works, how to fix my mind and relationships, what are the secrets of success, and how to undo assortments ailments that come with age. I also like puzzles and comics and celebrity gossip and nosey advice columns, and would rather read a daily humor column than more depressing news. Print news is especially less vital in these times of round-the-clock radio, TV and Internet coverage.
A lot of news is not information. Another murder. Another study. Another change of heart on Capitol Hill. Another Bobby Abreu trade rumor. News becomes yadda-yadda to most of us, I think, because in the final analysis, we can't be sure what matters. Give me more lasting, useful information more often. More "truth." More explanatory writing. Example: Do a series on "Your Aches and Pains," offering help for sore feet, backs, joints and brains.
Mainstreaming is not "dumbing down." It's just reflecting what matters in reader's lives.
Fine dining and recipes are great, but what about all those products we buy off supermarket shelves? A few people are into"smart" chess and bridge, but many more are into fantasy sports and needlework. Nice to review TV shows before they premiere, but don't you most want to read about what's happening now on your favorite hit ... or about that new outrageous commercial? Consumer and investing advice should be more sensitive to the struggles of middle incomers. Why not a regular business feature called How to Save $50? How about a column on contests, with tales of winners and strategies? There's lot of interest in mainstream sex and romance, but for political and news-judgment reasons, that's overshadowed by the unusual, controversial or long-ignored gender-related issues. Why not profile business and civic leaders when they're not in the news, sharing a look at their homes, families and hobbies -- their human side? Lowercase the in The Inquirer.
The most local story is what's meaningful to you. If cancer is cured in Japan, that matters to everyone. Word of the latest Podunk Council ordinance matters to few. It can take 100 local stories to interest 100 towns (each boring all but 99), while one story like "Aches and Pains," citing local doctors, can have nearly universal appeal. Newspapers would do well to adopt this magazine cover-story approach (but on a daily or weekly basis): What's the compelling subject we can report, newsy or not? Or at least turn that little local crime story into an absorbing suspenser or parable with a message for us all.
I'd get all those paragraphs off the front page, and turn it into a lively gigundo index / summary / briefing with just little pictures, headlines and teasers. Why? Because a headline often tells you all you want to know. ("5 dead in Baghdad car bomb.") Because most of us want to feel filled in faster. And because everybody hates jumps.
I'd downsize all the big headlines and big art and banish wasted white space, however good it all looks, in favor of fitting in more 5-inch stories and little pics. Not boring lists of newsy briefs. Snappy tidbits, lists, quizzes or quotes with mini art to make the browsing more fun and informative.
Furthermore: Every paper needs a daily columnist who writes short, affectionate, even funny items about ordinary local people and everyday life, not important issues. (Like Clark DeLeon, pre-MOVE.) ... Borrow from talk radio and embrace spirited debates on politics, sports, the arts, business and more. That is, print back-and-forth give-and-take between two writers in a single feature (not separate differing essays). Lone voices are often weakened by the the need to sound reasonable and balanced. ... In print and online, make it much easier to find out what's going on. Every day, have a Today & Tomorrow column. Every week, have a major two-page calendar / index in the entertainment listings section.
Last but not least, have a Sunday section that reprints the week's best human-interest stories. Rescue the great reads! Showcase the best work! Maybe put a Best-of-the Inquirer section in the Daily News; and vice versa. There's great stuff in most newspapers that's shuffled off to recycling piles heart-breakingly fast.
Oh, adopt morning marketing techniques and survey the popularity of every last little thing. Down to individual writers and columns. Not saying being a slave to the data, but every yawner replaced with a must-read is another step toward reviving circulation.
Don't know if this is a rescue plan, or even a good start. What do you think?
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