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The problem with newspapers

Actress Ava Gardner, a metaphor for USA Today

By Steve  Auslander

I retired early after 34 years at the same newspaper. I was an editorial writer at the end, but I’d had other jobs. For nearly 14 years, I ran the news operation. It makes me sad to see how over the past few years newspapers have been caught in such dire straits. I suppose I am fortunate that I no longer work in the business I once loved. It has changed. I have been out for seven years now, having left just before the business plunged into the financial abyss. There has been so much talk about the cuts and the future, that dark future of newspapers.

The talk today focuses on the Internet and how the newspapers gave away their franchise. Still, nothing much has changed in the business. Newspapers are still obsessed with style and seemingly indifferent about content. They are stodgy. Once was there was delight and surprise in newsprint. Today it’s routine. There’s hardly a creative spark.


Style over substance

I took early retirement because in the last months, the work made no sense. The editorial page was formatted beyond reason. There was but one editorial per day, and it had to be 585 words long. It could not vary by more than four words in count. To do so would break the line of type, which was prohibited by the format. The format dictated length, and it was futile to argue the madness of this notion. The editor would not budge. He had spent a great deal of time studying alleged “best practices” at other papers, specifically the Sacramento Bee, whose circulation has since plummeted like that of every other paper in the country.

The format also required syndicated columns on either side of the 585-word editorial. The space allocated to these pieces was precisely 505 words. Part of my job was to select columns. Most wrote about 750 words, meaning I had to cut about a third of what they had written. This was very difficult because I believed that as an editor it just this side of immoral to insert transitions, to add text not  by the author..

The biggest problem with having to butcher so much copy is weaving in the transitions. It felt like committing mortal sin to cut the bejesus out of Molly Ivins and George F. Will.

I could not fathom how requiring form to dictate substance would possibly attract readers. But it apparently had been discovered that “presentation” created an irresistible sizzle, and marketing departments said readers could not quit salivating until they bought the paper.

I did not realize it then, but the dominance of style over content had become the measure of quality in newspapers.There was a good reason. Newspapers that underwent a major redesign saw circulation numbers increase. The numbers weren’t big, but they were positive by a percent or more. Part of the reason is that a new-look launch invariably leads to lots of money for promotion — billboards, television and radio. The numbers do not hold. It takes a dozen or so months for the trend of declining readership to reestablish itself.

The readership decline began in earnest in the late 1970s. Oddly, another trend went hand-in-glove with the decrease —impressive profit gains. The newspaper industry began to make scads by investing in new press technology and digital publishing systems, achieving tremendous cost reductions that boosted profit. Profit margins soared. They went from as little as eight or 10 percent to as much as 30 percent return on investment.

Media empires evolved over just a few short years, the Gannett Company perhaps the most aggressive. It typically outbid competitors. This was a strategy developed by its CEO and prime mover, Al Neuharth, who believed the bane of the family-owned newspaper was uncontrolled and excessive expense. Few media companies controlled costs as well as Gannett.

To battle the loss of readers, the media giants turned to marketing. Millions were spent on readership surveys and focus groups. The problem was analyzed, studies conducted, committees formed, numbers sliced, diced, massaged and mangled. Why readers disappeared was a mystery to media companies. The numbers showed some preferred television news, but the rest vanished without clear explanation. This led to speculation: People were busy, newspapers did not fit the current lifestyle and could not compete with movies, concerts, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

The most impressive and lasting result of intense newspaper marketing research was and is USA Today. Launched in September 1982, USA Today adopted guidelines that some editors thought were the opposite of what should be done. Because television news could scratch only the surface of the news, most editors believed newspapers should take advantage of the ability to provide background and depth.

This was no advantage to the founders of USA Today. No story could run long, four or five paragraphs being the preferred length. Sections were color- coded (green for the business section, no less). No “jumps” (stories continued on another page inside). It had to have REALLY BIG headlines. It had to be a treasure trove of story-board graphics, tables, maps, lists, photos, logos, drawings, dingbats and gewgaws, anything that could possibly be used instead of words. The weather required a full -page map with numbers, arrows, wind directions, lists of cities foreign and domestic with temperatures, predictions, precipitation, wind directions, high fronts, low fronts, atmospheric conditions, flotsam, jetsam and moon phases.

USA Today was conceived as a newspaper desperately trying to be television. Jack Fuller, the head of the Chicago Tribune before it became destitute, wrote in his book “News Values” that all newspapers have personalities. For me the personality that fits USA Today is the gorgeous actress Ava Gardner, who once said: “Deep down, I’m superficial.”

The primary assumption of McPaper’s creation was that words are the problem. Words are a work-around. The assumption is that if given a choice people will not read when they can watch motion and hear sound.

USA Today also is the designer’s newspaper. Its debut represents the ascension of the page designer in the hierarchy of the newsroom. Throughout the land designers were summoned and they multiplied like bunnies. It was the final — so far — triumph of style over substance.


At about the same time as McPaper was being launched, I attended my first and only meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. It was in Washington, D.C., and naturally President Reagan came and spoke to these really important people. The final dinner was in the grand ballroom of one of Washington’s grand hotels, the Mayflower perhaps. I was stunned. It was a dinner dance with full orchestra, a black-tie affair with gowns and glitz. I took it all in for a couple of minutes and went back to my room, ordered an inordinately overpriced tuna sandwich on toast and watched TV. This was an organization of social butterflies. Its collective self thought far better of itself than I figured was warranted. It is a safe bet that most of the editors in the ballroom were once reporters who sneered readily and sincerely at the self-important stuffed shirts they covered. I could not shake the thought of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and the pigs.

In retrospect, this was but one small manifestation of the “professionalization” of newspaper journalism, which had earned a heap of respectability after exposing Richard Nixon and the Watergate cover-up. Sometime after that, the profession entered a phase of self-purification. It was as though a few influential editors decided to sanitize and professionalize and thereby command respect and a status above and beyond gravy-stained ties and “Front Page” rowdies scratching for stories. Newspaper men and women thus became journalists, went to universities where their brains were scrubbed during many an ethics wash and rinse cycle and nasty romantic stains removed.

Here is an example and true story: A reporter, working late on a Friday night, picked up the phone and listened to an intriguing story. The caller said he was a cook and his lady boss had a problem with her husband who was supposedly messing up the restaurant. She wanted hubby dead. The woman proposed the caller kill her husband. She would pay $1,500. The cook-caller told the reporter that he couldn’t do it, and wouldn’t go to the cops. He’d been in trouble before. The lady, said the caller, was determined to eliminate her spouse, which was too bad, said the caller, because he was a good guy.

The reporter, considering himself a quick-witted, think-on-his-feet kind of guy, said to the caller: “Tell her I will do it.” The caller agreed, and what followed amounted to nothing, no conspiracy, no murder. The woman got cold feet.

It took a while for the report of this incident to reach the editor. The editor told the reporter not to mislead people. Always tell them who you are and what you are doing.

At the time, I would have agreed with the editor because I mindlessly accepted the alleged ethics of the day. But back when I was a reporter, I delighted in not telling people I was a reporter, posing as a buyer or just an unnamed, inquisitive soul to get a story. It was not illegal. It is an ethical principle that saps the fun out of being a reporter.

The greatest example in support of undercover reporting is the 1978 Mirage Bar story by two reporters at the Chicago Sun-Times.

The story was the creature of Pamela Zekman, an investigative reporter lured from the Chicago Tribune to the Sun-Times by editor James Hoge. When asked what stories she had in mind to earn her keep, Zekman mentioned this and that. After a little more prodding, she said she had a fantasy of operating a tavern in Chicago, the reason naturally being that she would have direct contact with hundreds, if not thousands, of extortionists, thieves, liars, druggies, pimps and whores of the Windy City. Zekman knew the bar would become just another business where the cost of doing business was daily shakedowns by inspectors, gangsters, bureaucrats and politicians.

This was no small feat, buying a bar to expose crime and injustice. Publisher Marshall Field had to produce the cash to buy the place. It was a dive, and therefore needed some work. The bar had to be staffed, and the reporter had to attend bartender school. A duck blind had to be set up for photographers. It was a mammoth project, requiring enormous commitment. The Sun-Times ran a 25-part series exposing corruption. The Sun-Times caught many hands in many cookie jars. Reputations turned to crud and people went to jail.

When it came time for the Pulitzer Prizes, the jury chose the Sun-Times for the coveted award, deservedly` so. But that group of influential editors disagreed. Because the Sun-Times employed deception by going under cover, the higher and mightier editors rejected the committee’s selection.

The people who run newspapers ought to be happy to scratch around and dig dirt and get nasty filthy fingernails and have fun doing it. It’s idealistic. It’s a thrill. And so long gone thanks to the self-righteous higher and mightier. The Mirage Bar is a book. It is online at http://dlib.nyu.edu/undercover/mirage-pamela-zekman-zay-n-smith-chicago-sun-times.

The story’s the thing

I saw a story in Forbes the other day by a fellow who was put off by a survey that said being a reporter was the fifth worst job to have in 2012. Reporting was worse than waiting tables and only slightly better than working on an oil rig, the survey said. The reporter wrote that this was untrue, that reporting was the best and most rewarding job, albeit poorly paid. Nonetheless, it was a great job, he said, because: (1) one is always learning; (2) one is paid to read a lot; (3) one meets interesting people and (4) celebrities; (5) one may become a bit of a celebrity in one’s own right and (6) one is permitted to express oneself.

This fellow would not have made much of a ripple in Frank Johnson’s newsroom. Frank was the first managing editor I got to know well. He was old school, worked nights and always saw that first edition and read it closely, pencil in hand, brow furrowed. A few minutes before six, Frank liked to prowl the newsroom, survey his troops, check their reportorial armor. He was about five-nine with wisps of gray at the temples and a deep tan on the order of George Hamilton. He said his suits were from J.C. Penney, but they looked as if they were tailored on Saville Row.

“Hey, Stever,” he would say, taking a short drag on his Lark cigarette. “Whatcha got today?” I would peer over my glasses at him, hunched as I was over my lovely Underwood as the newsroom clattered and carriage chimes dinged. I knew what was coming. Frank parted his hands, Lark in his right, and said, “Got something that’ll blow the lid off the town?”

If I did, which was rare, I said something like maybe a small corner of the town. If I didn’t, I would I hem and haw; I was working on it, I would say. No one could say no. It was Frank’s greatest desire to have a big story, blow the lid off the town, cause avalanches and make bad guys cry.

I cannot say for certain that the big story is no longer uppermost in today’s reportorial minds. I can say it does not seem so. The man from Forbes didn’t seem anxious to break the story of the century. It’s nice to keep learning, agitating the little gray cells, nice to read, nice to meet interesting people and even celebrities, and even to be celebrated. But none of that comes anywhere near the rush of breaking a good story. The story is the thing.

I broke a few stories, none of which, I am sad to report, blew the lid off. It was almost as much of a rush to write an editorial that would peel the self-satisfied, vote-for-me smile off a politician’s face. Case in point: The city manager announced he would sit on a report written by his staff. A reporter asked why. The city manager replied because he could. I wrote an editorial that said the city manager must have been a descendant of Louis XIV, the Sun King, who declared, “I am the state.” The city manager had, in effect, declared, “I am the city.” He released the report the day after the editorial appeared.

I do not remember how long the piece was, but I don’t think it was as much as 585 words. But it did carry a photo of the city manager with a white wig.


Definitions of quality


In April 1993, Michael Crichton, author of “Jurassic Park” and many other novels, told members of the National Press Club in Washington that the mass media were lazy, inept and not worth diddly squat. So worthless that in 10 years they would disappear.

It was a remarkable speech. It was the first time I had heard anyone discuss the quality of newspapers, declare it outhouse stinky bad, explain how so and provide examples. He compared news as a product to his car. The latter was reliable and came with a warranty. The former was a lot of chrome and glitz, overly simplified and poorly made, and came with a lot of excuses for the bad craftsmanship. (There probably is a text of the speech somewhere on the Web, but I couldn’t find it. It’s preserved on a C-Span video, which runs the better part of an hour: http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/TheQu&showFullAbstract=1.)

In the question-and-answer session after the speech, no one argued with Crichton. One question sort of made his point. He was asked if he considered “media” a plural or singular noun, since he had used it both ways. It was inane and a couple of continents off the point. Crichton was never challenged, but perhaps there was no rebuttal. He told of his experience, checking reported facts and finding flaws and more flaws. The more he looked, the more he discovered Ava Gardner.

I was shocked by the audience’s sanguine acceptance of the devastating critique and impressed by the idea of quality journalism, and how one might define a “quality newspaper.” It’s a difficult question. It’s like describing a personality that appeals, and that’s difficult.

The best everyday newspaper I ever read was when I was a teenager in Santa Clara, California, in the 1960s. I was a paperboy. I delivered the San Jose Mercury in the morning and then the afternoon News. I also delivered the San Francisco Chronicle, which had a broad Northern California reach. The Chronicle was the paper I relished and read before I started folding and wrapping rubber bands around my papers. It was not so much the news that drew me, but the columnists, a stable of brilliant writers on topics that beamed out of the blue.

Herb Caen had his “Bagdad by the Bay” column that extolled the virtues and beauty of his city. He came to personify the city and spent nearly 60 years on that column, the first one being written in 1938. Here is just a small part of his valentine to the city, written in 1960: “And when your Bay is shining with timelessness and the daphne blooms in secret gardens to herald the spring that waits around the corner — then we are young again and certain with the confidence of lost youth, that there is no better place to be in all the darkling world.”

Charles McCabe passed judgment on most all things at hand; women and strong drink and Montaigne were among his favorites. Here he is on boredom:“Once in a while even the best among us tires of the sad kindergarten of life. From space ships to swizzle sticks, we begin to wonder if here is any point to our toys. The monastic life begins to look pretty good.”

Lucius Beebe wrote a column for the Chronicle until his death at age 63 in 1966. He was by profession and admission an unrepentant snob, born in Boston. He favored a monocle and frequently wore a top hat and tails, a gold chain draped to one hip, and wrote more than once about the wonder and benefits of the bowler hat. He had no sympathy for the poor and was given to strong opinions couched in colorful language such as this on the notion of where Americans go (or don’t) when they die: “Whatever may be their predilection, they don’t go to the screaming, sooty abode of chaos that for a thousand years has spuriously referred to itself as ‘The City of Light,’ which is filled with foreigners, many of them Frenchmen.”

There were others as good and very well-read. Stan Delaplane’s column, usually placed above Caen’s, ostensibly was about travel. Art Hoppe wrote about politics. The Chronicle was a newspaper that did not depend on the news to surprise and delight readers. It had its lineup of columnists. I wanted to read the Chronicle because it was filled with a wonder of surprises. Columnists have followers, and I have encountered many that not only were worth reading, but also worth the price of the paper. A short list of favorites: Molly Ivins, Mike Royko, Russell Baker, James Reston, Paul Greenberg, Ellen Goodman, Everett S. Allen, Heywood Broun, Ben Hecht and the one and only, the incomparable, incredible, irresistible and never-to-be-missed Jimmy Breslin, the greatest.

It is surprising that these writers were so good, but it’s rarely if ever acknowledged that they were nearly three times as productive as today’s columnists. The writers who appear regularly on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times — and nearly every other syndicated columnist in the country — write two columns per week. That is a rate of 37.5 words per hour based on a 40-hour work week and all of 750 words per column. Back when columnists were columnists and men were men, the rate was nearly 100 words an hour, five columns a week, one a day.

I cannot explain why this is the case other than the plaintive cries of put-upon hand-wringing columnists who said they could manage but two a week. This is a lot of horse manure to be sitting in one place for so long. Newspaper writing is athletic conditioning: the more you do, the better you get. That might explain why pervasive mediocrity today prances daily across the nation’s Op-Ed pages. I cannot imagine what two-a-week columnists do to fill their days. It is yet another example of Parkinson’s Law (work expands to fill the time allotted).

A possibility

 I admit my prescription for what ails newspapers might seem vague. It consists of not only of excellent writing with finding extraordinary stories, but also of having great fun. The thrills lie in nooks and crannies just waiting to be discovered. It’s not news that there is joy and fun in newspaper work. But it is ignored or perhaps not so much ignored as forgotten.

The day may come that banks and other institutions finally stop extending credit to failing newspapers and order the assets to be sold at auction, even if for only cents on the dollar. It could happen that the buyer is of the species that remembers what newspapers could be and believes his or her newspaper’s personality should be a combination of Winston Churchill and Kurt Vonnegut and create an irresistibly witty and must-read product. OK, it would be a stretch, a really farfetched, semi-impossible hail-Mary miracle.

It could happen.

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