Wednesday, November 10, 2004


There are idiots in all professions. Having long ago chosen journalism, I liked to think it was the exception, but in fact the field is crawling with vermin, halfwits, bottom feeders and mad dogs, as well as your garden-variety hacks, lifers and conference dwellers.

A conference dweller is the sort that goes to peer gatherings, or merely scans the resulting literature, and comes away with a mistaken impression they’ve learned something. The problem with conference dwellers absorbing the lessons of accomplishments elsewhere is that they forget to think critically about what they’ve learned, much less to adapt what they’ve learned to where ever they return when their expense account runs out.

After USA Today hit the streets in 1982, for instance, a panicked clot of editors and publishers raced to produce the briefest, most colorful news report possible; in the U.S.A. today, most of those editors and publishers would blush furiously if shown their own product. It’s like unveiling long-lost home movies of them trying to moonwalk wearing one sequined glove.

Another bastard offspring of this was market research showing people didn’t like jumps, meaning they didn’t want to have to turn a page to finish an article.

This is reasonable. People don’t like to get up to answer the doorbell, either, even if it’s Ed McMahon and a giant check on the other side of the door, and they don’t even always like having to meet or exchange names with people with whom they want to have sex. But, darn it, sometimes you have to work a little. In the case of traditional newspapers, readers are asked to turn to a certain page if, and only if, they are adequately interested in a given topic. Whew.

The insight that this was a burden was taken very seriously by the executive editor of the midsize daily newspaper I worked at in the mid-1990s. For a brief, embarrassing period, we had no jumps from our front page. Because the front page is where newspapers keep the most exciting, interesting and urgent news, this meant that our newspaper’s most exciting, interesting and urgent news was also its shortest. The hotter the news, the less readers got to know about it.

Soon, some of the front-page articles were as long as ever, but we still couldn’t jump. Instead, our front page was just very, very ugly.

Eventually, the paper moved on to new concerns. If I remember correctly, one of them was journalism.

Tomorrow: More true, chilling tales of misguided newspaper policy! Not for the weak of heart!


eric said...

What they missed is the fact that, even in its early years, the "main feature" always jumped to page 2 in USA Today. That was true on the front of every section.

I had an editor once who claimed that USA Today's biggest contribution in 20 years was going to be in killing sports agate...all those little tiny pieces of information. He said that USA Today was replacing that "useless crap" with cheaper stringer copy. I'll be damned if he didn't it it on the nose.

Scape7 said...

If I remember correctly that main feature was, and is, called the "Cover Story." I've always found that funny — because the "Cover Story" is always surrounded by several other, uh, stories that just happen to also be, uh, on the cover.