Sunday, August 16, 2009

Many not-so-tragic demises

The paradigmatic American newspaper, once its competition had been eliminated, settled down into a comfortable monopoly position in most cities; sometimes there was another paper around, but in most places one newspaper stood dominant and took home most of the ads, not to mention the money.

These monopoly positions created a dynamic by which the only thing a paper could do wrong was to offend or, God forbid, lose a reader. ...

The commentators most caught up in the romanticized notion of newspaper cite the potential loss of the newspapers’ “watchdog” function. Let’s be honest. Most newspapers in the U.S. aren’t watchdogs, and most of the rest don’t spend an inordinate amount of time being watchdogs.

I live now in one of the very largest cities in the U.S., but it’s in classic flyover territory, a sociological light year away from a major media center. Here’s a list of the headlines that appeared on a recent day on the front cover of the paper’s feature section, including both stories and news squibs:

“Wooden Memories”
“Test your hearing”
“Free burrito for teachers”
“Post office food drive”
“Fight Crohn’s and colitis”
“Mom and Estában”
“Healthful salsa non-guilty pleasure”
“Great gifts for teachers” ...

It’s obvious from reading down that list of headlines that there was nothing there of remote interest of just about any sentient being. But that’s not what the paper’s editors were aiming for. The point is that there was nothing there that could possibly offend anyone. ...

The web doesn’t reward blandness. It doesn’t really like the obvious, the inoffensive and the established. Today, if you published a web page with the headlines I just listed on it—you know, starting with “Wooden Memories” and going right on down to “Great Gifts for Teachers”—you wouldn’t get many readers. In this way, the web mercilessly exposes the flaccidness of the content of most papers. It creates a straightjacket for them: As they desperately bland themselves out on land, the material they have on hand to impress in cyberspace is correspondingly pallid.
--Bill Wyman, Splice Today, on why most newspapers suck. HT: Andrew Sullivan

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