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Beneath the brouhaha

Reader, it’s THAT WORD again. You have been notified.

Much of the commentary about the headline Tuesday’s editions of The Baltimore Sun’s sister paper b, and to this blog’s post about it, was predictable. Some readers found the use of the word douchebag in big type as the cover headline coarse and objectionable, adolescent and trivial. Several defenders of the headline resorted to name-calling as a substitute for argument, dismissing those who objected as a bunch of geezers headed for the boneyard. (Nice. You talk to your Zayde with that mouth?)

But there are more substantial issues to explore beyond the Those Damn Kids/Those Old Crocks predictabilities. They have to do with the identity and future of newspapers.

If current and former employees of the Tribune Company could leave off rapping the corporation’s knuckles for a few minutes, they might be able to look more clearly at what b represents. Nothing that any metropolitan daily has attempted in more than a generation has brought a substantial increase of younger readers to the main paper. Tribune deserves some credit for putting money into a venture to attract a different audience.

And to do something new means cutting the new operation a little slack. Attracting a different audience requires different means, particularly when it is an audience that has not been previously captured. This requires experimenting. I don’t envy Anne Tallent, the editor of b, the task of accomplishing this.* She has to try things to see what works, and the douchebag feature was such an effort. She says, and it is hard to brush this argument away, that many readers enjoyed the feature. If you don’t believe that, you can look at the comments on the paper’s Web site.

There are two things that newspapers have not been good at: innovation and evaluating what little innovation they have done. If b is to succeed, it much experiment, but it must also determine what works and what doesn’t. I’d like to think that the staff of b ignored the bogus generational argument and reviewed the douchebag feature to determine whether it is the kind of thing that works for them.

I wasn’t much impressed myself by the effort at humor, which was about at the undergraduate level, but you can’t find out what works without trying things that do not work.

One of the defenses of the feature, the argument that a little vulgarity is fine because it appeals to b’s audience and doesn’t affect anyone else, is specious. The paper doesn’t get handed to readers; it’s picked up from sidewalk boxes, on which the DOUCHEBAG! head was plainly displayed, to the irritation of certain parents whose children saw it on the way home from middle school. And b is identified with The Baltimore Sun, featured on our Web site, and on a sign on our parking garage. If you want to put it in stark commercial terms, staff members of The Baltimore Sun have a legitimate interest in protecting the paper’s brand.

At the main paper, we have a sense of our readers’ expectations, developed over years of experience with them. We know that they appreciate a serious-minded approach to news and a looser, more colloquial tone in features, sports and columns. At baltimoresun.com, particularly in our dozens of blogs, we have a growing understanding of who our readers are and what their expectations are, and many of our blogs are accordingly even a little more unbuttoned than the material in the print edition.

At b, those understandings and conventions are still in play, still being developed. We in the stodgy old main paper would be insane to wish them failure in the enterprise, so we ought to cut them a little slack. But both publications would do well to keep in mind that we are in this together.

 

* I, a 57-year-old bookworm who hasn’t listened to any popular music since spring term 1970, am plainly not the man for the task. Even in the supposed golden age of Saturday Night Live in the 1970s, I thought that the show was only fitfully funny, dragged down by labored humor (“Weekend Update”) and sketches that went on too long and didn’t know how to end. Still the case.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:33 PM | | Comments (9)
        

Comments

It occured to me that, if you showed the actual item to the b target audience, 99 out of 100 would not be able to identify it.

I wouldn't be surprised if the average user of the word thinks it's a combination of "douche" in its feminine freshness context, plus "bag" as an intensifier.

I'm not inclined to attempt the experiment.

Regardless of the target audience for the B, (excuse me, the b), the bottomline remains: newspapers should refrain from using words that cannot be used at the dinner table. It is what sets us aside from the playboy magazines and the supermarket tabloids.

Always remember that there was a time when the waltz was thought to be a most lascivious dance. In today's urban environment it would be hard to find a child much beyond the "You're a poopy-head!" stage who would not be familiar with the word in question and its modern meaning. Mr. McIntyre, when you and I were teenagers, myself a few years before you, rock and roll was considered an instrument of the Devil. Ed Sullivan would not show Elvis below the waist on his show. Times change, language and sensibilities change, and it does no good to deplore it.

Apropos of absolutely nothing, I just needed to vent:

I'm nearly finished reading ... a book I won't name in case it gets me into trouble. In the acknowledgments section, the author thanks his editors. I can't think why...

Examples:

a...mafiosi

alter boys... I have images of little
boys running around changing things

mantel [of power]... I hope it was a wood one, and not marble

marine corp... I don't remember if they bothered to even capitalize it... but I want stock!

wretch... as a verb... after looking at a severed head

straight-laced

free reign

Kazan's cache [as a director]... is he HIDING his Academy awards?

plains... for transportation

drips and drabs... I might be wrong here, or it may be regional, but I've never heard anything but "dribs and drabs"


Some of these MAY have been typos, but some, like the "alter boys," were repeated throughout. And isn't it the editor's job to correct typo's anyhow? Someone is relying a tad too heavily on spell-check, I think.


Thank you.

Ouch. Nenya, may I suggest you look up Evelyn Waugh on the decline of proofreading?

An aside -- suggest that the sketches that don't know when to end are a fundamentally, depressingly generational thing. By this I mean that in the generation that takes instant gratification for granted and thinks supersizing is a good thing, the concept of sufficiency is perhaps underdeveloped or absent. It's no good trying to persuade them that less is more when they have no notion of enough.(Oh dear, that does sound elderly! And I'm not even near 57 yet....)

Of more concern than the use of the word is that the piece seems to be taken in its entirety from a well-worn Internet meme (search for "Anatomy of a Douchebag"). The concept was already mined, exhaustively, by a Las Vegas tourism campaign. If this is a bid for younger readers, it's a sad effort.

You're cutting these kids way too much slack. There are some basic rules in journalism, and the editors of this worthless rag violated the most elementary of them all. Giving them a pass in the name of innovation is pretty sad. Have attempts to draw younger readers really stooped to throwing vulgarity in the passerby's face? Surely there must be a better answer.

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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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