What Ails Modern Newspapering

What Ails Modern Newspapering

I believe I can explain what’s wrong with newspapers, which are losing circulation faster than the Arctic is hemorrhaging ice. I know something about newspapering. I was a paperboy. Later, but not by much, I owned a newspaper, which several friends and I started from scratch. Then we bought a second weekly to create the smallest media chain in the Western Hemisphere. My partners and I used to have fun with our little newspapers, when we weren’t being sued or audited by the IRS.

The G-men descended because they saw how pathetic our profits were compared to our gross revenues. We’d been in business for eight years, and all we did was pay the bills. Being young and foolish, we thought that was pretty good. We had too many employees, but every Thursday we put out a pretty fair rag, if I do say so myself. Had we been skimming 20 percent off the top, like today’s media combines, the federales never would have wasted their time or ours.

We were country journalists first and business people second. When in doubt, we’d hire another 20-year-old reporter to cover the next one-horse hamlet. Sometimes I’d come into the office in the morning and find a fledgling scribe asleep on the layout table, using a roll of paper towel for a pillow. The local Masons rented the floor above us, and once a week, while we were trying to satisfy the public’s right to know, they’d be stomping about like it was opening day of cockroach season.

The Gazette and The Compass of southeastern Connecticut carried the obligatory oh-so-serious stuff: stories on sonorous school board meetings or nasty debates about septic lagoons. There was a ruddy-faced dairy farmer on the school board, and he’d be asleep before the minutes from the last meeting were regurgitated. We liked him so we never reported that. Our most popular feature, however, was the police blotter. Don’t let readers tell you they don’t feast on bad news, alleged or otherwise.

We published scathing editorials, too, written with the fervor and wisdom that less than three decades on earth can impart. The looming midnight deadline – and the lure of that six-pack of beer cooling on the window ledge – inspired us to unimaginable heights of purple prose.

We had fun, too, both in and out of print. Where is it written that a newspaper must be terminally serious throughout? Take your modern editorial page and those adjacent op-ed rants – please! You’d think that the human race had two weeks to live, and that humor was heresy. When was the last time an opinion piece made you laugh – I’m talking intentionally now? Where have you gone, Russell Baker, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you?

Our editorial page included a signed column by The Ancient Editor. A photo of this toothless wonder accompanied his biting satire. He was 116, omniscient and way too candid. He ranted and raved and offended everyone he could, including us “whippersnappers” on occasion. He teased our readers, savaged our competitors and pulled more legs than a disgraced Congressman. He could be quite funny, if I must say so myself.

The humor wasn’t confined to the editorial pages. When two of our reporters got married, we closed the announcement with “A January divorce is planned.” The town’s grandest grand dame marched into our office forthwith, caterwauling at our flippancy. We thanked her for her outrage. My guess is she never missed an issue, checking every page for our next atrocity. Never baby your readers – they won’t respect you in the morning.

Every April 1, we ran a fake story or three (some claimed we ran several per week). Some liked this, some didn’t. The main thing was we liked it. When times were hard – we gave birth to The Gazette in a raging recession and survived the 1979 gas crisis and a second recession in the early 1980s – we didn’t layoff reporters. Somehow we knew that giving our readers less wasn’t the answer.

The bottom line is this: Newspaper publishing should be a high calling and an adventure. Readers can tell if your heart’s not in it, or if you’re counting beans at their expense. Get lively and have some fun. Value good writers and pay them. Don’t pander to your readers. Surprise them. That’s my prescription. Running this column would be a good start.