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Cranky Old Guy redux

Down at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., Roy Peter Clark wrote a little essay last week on the duty of reading the newspaper. And he got some lively responses.

My own suspicion is that duty will prove to be an ineffective motivation. Let me raise the curtain for a brief glimpse into the newsroom of a major metropolitan daily.

I was sitting at the copy desk one afternoon when A Senior Editor stopped at a nearby desk to compliment a reporter on an article that had run in that morning’s editions. It was a great story, A Senior Editor said: “I read it all the way to the end.”

When the highest praise A Senior Editor at your own paper can bestow is that he read your story to the end, you can be sure that not many people are reading anything all the way through. And if the people who work with you and make their bread by producing the paper cannot be troubled to read stories through, why should we expect the customers to be doing anything more, duty be damned.

Yes, we do produce the occasional article that identifies a compelling subject and explores it with grace. But it is much more common for us to produce, say, a 3,000-word article that the reader abandons after about 150. (The word frequently applied in-house to the article of 3,000 or more words by Another Senior Editor was “goat-choker.”) Or we produce a 300-word article that is so sketchy as to be pretty much worthless to the reader. We seem to have trouble gauging the range.

We run a wire service article about Iraq that leads with a car bomb explosion in Baghdad, switches to two American soldiers killed in Anbar province, adds a riot in Kirkuk, doubles back to the car bombing in Baghdad, tosses in some quotes from a general and then stops abruptly. It’s hard to lead the reader in a dance when you’re stepping on your own feet.

We run lengthy articles about families who have lost children and discover, at length, that they feel the pain of loss. We discover that the weather gets hot in the summertime and cold in the winter. We dwell on the anniversaries of events, which means that we can pad out these stories with archival material at intervals of one, five, 10, 20, 25, 30, 40 and 50 years. We write about bureaucracies in language that mirrors the way bureaucrats write.

It is easy to lose sight of the really solid articles we produce because they get choked and obscured by the weedy products of habit, self-indulgence or lack of imagination.

I doubt that duty will carry anyone — not the newspaper staff, much less the reader — very far in reading newspapers. I think that the trick lies in writing something that someone would have a good reason to read.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:51 PM | | Comments (1)
        

Comments

I have encountered this within the newsroom as well. When I was wire editor at a regional paper, I was often asked in our daily budget meeting something like this:

"Shouldn't we run something off the wire about Sudan/civilian casualties in Iraq/health care/pick your topic?"

Sometimes, the question was a good one. Maybe we had not covered a topic adequately and needed a push in the right direction. But often the answer was something like this:

"Well, that was our display lede on 3A in this morning's paper."

It was apparent that not everyone in the newsroom read the newspaper.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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