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Articles of faith

Newspapers accumulate any number of unexamined practices. Some things they do because they have always done them. Some things they do because some consultant or other charlatan arrived with a Big Idea. (Sometimes it’s the Big Guy’s inspiration, and you’ve seen the fate of those who fail to leap to it with enthusiasm.) Some things they do because they actually credited what someone in a focus group said. The common element is that these practices are almost never subjected to skeptical inquiry or objective testing. They are merely supplanted by other unsound practices.

What brought this to mind was a passage in H.L. Mencken’s Newspaper Days, which has been reprinted by the Johns Hopkins University Press. He describes one such article of faith and his response to it after he was named Sunday editor of the Herald in 1901:

One of the worst relics of a more innocent day was a full page of fraternal order news — supplied free by the secretaries of the various lodges, but so badly written that copy-reading it was a heavy chore. The theory in the office was that this balderdash made circulation — that all the joiners of the town searched it every Sunday morning for their own names. This seemed to me to be bad reasoning, for any given joiner was bound to be disappointed nine Sundays out of ten. One Sunday I quietly dropped the page — and not a single protest came in.

No doubt many of you in what used to be called the newspaper game [sardonic chuckle] are aware of comparable wastes of time, energy and newsprint on equally dubious enterprises in your shops. I invite you to contribute your own examples of articles of faith — secure in the knowledge that I will protect your anonymity in the comments section.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:55 PM | | Comments (10)
        

Comments

God help me, Mencken is endlessly quotable.

The reporter "whose writing was so bad that it got him a job as an editorial writer on another paper."

Or, some pages later, this description of the class of editorial writers: "copy readers promoted from the city-room to get rid of them, alcoholic writers of local histories and forgotten novels, former managing editors who had come to grief on other papers, and a miscellany of decayed lawyers, college professors and clergymen with whispered pasts."

My former employer had PR-style business news celebrating the accomplishments of office workers in the area. The section, called Bits of Business, was condensed press releases with mug shots of the poor saps who'd passed their professional licensing exams or joined the staff of X firm.

There, of course, was other news in the region that couldn't fit (or be covered) because of this worthy cause and time consumer.

I'm sure their families appreciated the mug shots, but for everyone else, the entire enterprise was worthless.

Also, the editor insisted on running every child's name who made honor roll in the various schools in the area. Every semester, I'm sure it filled at least an entire page of newsprint. The theory that their parents bought the paper just to see Junior's name is pretty thin -- I'm sure the report card made a better souvenir.

My list of newspaper expendables:

— Stock tables
— Bridge columns
— Staff editorials
— Sports columnists
— Most wire copy

I'm not in the paper game, but I do data reporting, and I can certainly relate. A number of times a report I slaved over went missing for a day due to forces beyond my control, and slowly I realized that no one complained about it.

And then, away it went. No one shed a tear.

Well, the wholesale abandonment of stock tables by many newspapers, The Sun among them, suggests that that may be no longer an article of faith.

And the published apology by the editor of The Capital in Annapolis -- http://www.hometownannapolis.com/cgi-bin/read/2008/09_14-51/OPN -- for referring to bridge players as "cranky retirees" suggests that maybe that item still has a little life in it yet.

We dumped most of our stock tables earlier this year and are still getting complaints about it. Wait till we drop the daily TV grids...

Stocks vs. television listings: These are the things that draw us back into the reality of our readers. It makes me long for the days of the "big vegetable" submitted photo features. You can only imagine the outcry if the picture of Grandpa standing next to the zucchini that looked like Elvis did not appear in print fast enough.

There's a place for the bridge column, but I'm not sure it's a daily newspaper. "Cranky retirees," it seems, know how to use the Internet like just about everybody else.

I think most editors and publishers can't see past a short-term flurry of complaints to see that a given action — such as the dropping of a comic strip — really doesn't do any damage to most readers. They just wilt from the heat blasted their way by tiny but shrill constituencies. In these cash-strapped times, they need to be made of tougher stuff than that.

And yes, I think that means there there may soon be a time to say goodbye to "Dear Abby."

Dear Abby is gossip without Paris Hilton. An advice column, however, can be a good way to get a young teen reading something in the paper -- I used Ann Landers and Dear Abby to bring up topics I wanted to discuss with my offspring, then segued to other news in the paper.

I've had people come in and buy additional copies of the paper to have both sides of the page with the school honor roll. Never underestimate the power of scrapbooking to drive newspaper sales. Other people buy additional copies to mail the honor rolls to all the relatives.

In these cash-strapped times, we should find ways to allow people to upload news in formats where editing will be minimal. We should encourage schools and sports teams to use e-mail instead of the fax machine. And we should encourage teachers to require students to write almost every day of school and to become comfortable with writing and reading English.

The copy that can be eliminated from the newspaper depends on the paper and the community. An urban paper might be able to ditch most of the offerings from readers and still offer lively and thoughtful coverage of government and community events. A community paper, particularly in communities where many residents don't have computers (due to the lack of Internet service in rural areas, the religious beliefs of some readers or the lack of money for Internet service) may not be able to dump the Kiwanis news or the bridge column.

Here's what I would eliminate:
1. Illiterate and incomplete copy.
2. Announcements on neon orange or neon pink paper, since the person handling the paper will have a scarred retina after viewing the submission.
3. Photos that are out of focus, particularly photos of people whose backs are to the camera.
4. Photos of unnamed people.
5. Wire stories about weather.
6. Sports stories that are play-by-pay descriptions without insightful quotes from coaches or participants.
7. National op-ed columnists.
8. Wire stories about polls.
9. Wire stories about scientific studies with small sample sizes.
10. Stories about alternative medicine that use anecdotal evidence to imply efficacy.
11. Astrology columns.
12. Credulous stories about psychic claims and ghosts.

Alas, none of this effort to sieve copy will protect journalists from the accusation that the mainstream media has allowed the glories of gatekeeping to go to its collective head.

This is a dangerous game. I too was a Sunday editor once. I tried dropping the week's TV, and was savaged by enough readers to get the listings back the following week. I tried dropping the astrology column, producing strongly expressed dismay among my lady copyeditors, who maintained that no newspaper could be taken seriously without this feature. I retreated from the position that it was codswallop to the position that there was now no budget for it, and the ladies managed to find a contributor who was happy to provide free codswallop. So back it went.
A few years ago the South China Morning Post tried dropping its bridge column and that didn't last long either.

But by all means let's experiment.

tim

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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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