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Why newspapering stumbles

Doug Fisher and David Sullivan, two of my prized colleagues in the American Copy Editors Society, offer separate perspectives today on the troubles besetting newspaper journalism. While both write about the challenges of technology, each touches on some deeper attitudinal aspect. *

Professor Fisher’s frustration:

[A]s I have gone around making a presentation on how to use new digital tools to stay connected, the response in some newsrooms and at conferences has been tepid at best in many cases and downright hostile in others (along the lines of how am I supposed to do my job with all this, to which I often have wanted to respond, this is going to be your job, dammit).

There is a well-founded suspicion in the business that a big push has been on for some time to get more work done by fewer people. But at the same time, it has not been hard to find examples of mulish resistance to learning new things, a resistance at ground level that mirrors long-term short-sightedness at the top. When you dance with Juggernaut, you have to be nimble.

Mr. Sullivan’s frustration:

Too many journalists think the reader's pleasure is irrelevant, that the reader picks up the newspaper either to be instructed or to sit in awe of the literary talent being presented in it. In short, too many journalists are too full of themselves to succeed in the 21st century, when a newspaper needs to focus on what its readers want, since the readers' choices of what to do with their time seem limitless. That is the challenge for young journalists of the 21st century, who I hope will save us all.

Mr. Sullivan, talking to students at the University of Kansas, discovered that while they are more conversant with the new technology than many of their elders, they were not hostile to print. They were, as the term of art goes, platform agnostic. But they are not interested, I expect, in dull stuff on either platform.

It is not hard to find examples in newspapers of articles that have no identifiable audience. I have a thumb drive full of them for use in my editing class: the story that ambles through a dozen paragraphs of some less-than-riveting anecdote before condescending to explain what the point is (or that turns out not to have any particular point); the business story that is impenetrable to the lay reader, but too sketchy to be of any use to a business person; the governmental story crammed with bureaucratic procedure and jargon that never explains what consequence there is for anyone outside the loop; the feature story written to impress with the writer’s prowess in ransacking a thesaurus, drawing all the attention to the writer and none to the subject.

So the challenge is twofold. We have to master the new technologies, both to acquire useful information and to convey it in the form in which readers prefer to receive it, and we have to do some hard thinking about who those readers are and what they are interested in reading.

Oh, and while we’re doing that, could you fellows in the big offices try to figure out how to make money again?

 

* The full texts of Doug Fisher’s post and David Sullivan’s post.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:42 AM | | Comments (1)
        

Comments

Things have always been changing in the newspaper business and in life, itself. When I was on the staff of my college newspaper, I would deliver copy to the printers, watch them set it up on the linotype machines (watching the letters cascade down you realize where the term "font" came from), pull galley proofs, and finally set the pages for printing. Even the reporters and staffers in the '80s were using computer-based workstations to prepare and edit their stories. Today, using networked computers, copy is written, edited, and sent to be printed without ever being commited to paper. And with all these wonders we still have "Technological Luddites" who must be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. What's that old saying about "The more things change, the more they remain the same?"

And that's before we start talking about writing skills.

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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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