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.