Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A tale of a newspaper reader lost ...

... And some thoughts about this week's release of the Project for Excellence in Journalism's "The Changing Newsroom" report.

The tale is of my son who lives in Arkansas (where I am as I write this).

When my wife and I visited in December for the birth of our grandson, our son and daughter-in-law had subscribed to the paper, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.

This surprised me. After all, they had bought their house largely without looking at the paper. They had existed quite nicely, in fact, for almost five years in the area without the paper.

It also delighted me, as a 30-year-plus journalist. Every morning my son dutifully opened the paper and read it, especially the sports section.

But when we returned this time, the pile of papers, many not even unwrapped, was growing. What happened, I asked. No time, Dad, with the baby and all, he said (cue Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle"). Of course, he said this as he was watching the Tour de France on TV and getting ready to fire up the computer to watch the Mets game online (at least I had some good influence). He gets the other news he wants or needs (like that his softball team will have a playoff after all) from friends and co-workers or from specific online sites.

So I've been reading the paper this week, and I'm understanding why he might not have time. Today, for instance, I struggled through a front-page story on termite protection contracts that was so dense and lacking in a nut graf that I doubt many people would follow it much past the jump (and I was actually interested in it, coming as I do from a termite-infested state). And then I turned to this lede:

— Secretary of State Charlie Daniels on Monday certified for the Nov. 4 ballot Lt. Gov. Bill Halter’s proposal to amend the state constitution to allow state lotteries.

Halter said he’s “absolutely delighted” with the news that the secretary of state had validated 91,149 signatures from registered Arkansas voters, eclipsing the necessary 77,468 needed to get on the ballot.
Let's think about that through the eyes of my time-starved son. He has some interest in the lottery; we've mentioned it. But what do the first 18 words of this 27-word lede tell him? Absolutely nothing useful: Secretary of State Charlie Daniels on Monday certified for the Nov. 4 ballot Lt. Gov. Bill Halter’s proposal ....

We've taken up two-thirds of this lede and have not yet mentioned a lottery. Oh, the headline helps. But it doesn't substitute for a lede that gets to the point:

A state constitutional amendment to allow an Arkansas lottery is headed for the Nov. 4 ballot, as Secretary of state Charlie Daniels certified the proposal on Monday.

Lt. Gov Bill Halter, who has pushed for the lottery vote, said he’s “absolutely delighted” Daniels validated 91,149 signatures from registered Arkansas voters, eclipsing the 77,468 needed to get on the ballot.
This idea of bringing it on ourselves leads me to the PEJ changing newsrooms report. That's certainly a core theme, that newsrooms are cutting into their meat and bone, leaving them with tech-savvy but journalistically immature staff and less ability to adequately edit stories or tailor coverage to their local communities. But I'm conflicted about the report because that's too simple a reading. Clearly there is an online audience like my son -- even the report says so -- but many editors still fear it. It remains a race to find an online model (not just business but readership) on one hand while managing the decline of traditional print newsrooms that has for the moment at least been hastened by the abysmal advertising environment.

And as the report notes, readers aid and abet the confusion by complaining long and loud about what, essentially, are secondary things, like canceling a comic strip or the daily TV listings, but hardly whimper when the news hole is noticeably cut.

I'm still digesting it, trying to see if it really says much more than what already has been painfully obvious. Instead, I'm going to ask you to read two blog posts. The first, by Jeff Bercovici at the Seeking Alpha blog, finds "A Silver Lining in the Newspaper Crisis." He homes in on the findings that newspapers are focusing their limited resources on where they can distinguish themselves, a take on the report that seems far more sanguine than the report itself on those points.

Then I'd like you to read Mark Glaser's "The Newspaper Blurb That Complained to Me." Glaser takes a wry look that's devastatingly on target -- how the San Francisco Chronicle turned the story about the report lamenting the lack of resources into a blurb itself, and an unsatisfying one at that.

Taken together, I think they perfectly bookend the state of affairs.

Meanwhile, while we're all trying to sort it out, my son will go on raising his son and getting the information he needs, without the paper. I suspect my grandson will be no different.

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At 7/23/08, 11:03 PM, Blogger Kivi said...

Found this post from the link at "You Don't Say".

Maybe the writer wanted to say something like

Lt. Gov. Bill Halter’s proposal to amend the state constitution to allow state lotteries was certified on Monday by Secretary of State Charlie Daniels for the Nov. 4 ballot.

but felt the need to recast out of the passive voice?

At 7/24/08, 1:26 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

I see no problem with the passive voice when it gets the point of the story up front. Passive has a long and time-honored tradition in writing as long as it's overdone.

While the "Lt. Gov. Bill Halter's proposal ..." is certainly better, I still think the fact that it's the lieutenant guv's proposal is less important than that voters are going to be asked to amend the state constitution.

But that's relative quibbling compared to the original.


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