The newspaper industry unfurled

I admit. I haven’t worked in the industry for decades. I don’t concretely know what sells newspapers and what doesn’t. I know the direction the industry is going, and I know some strategies for luring potential readers to slip their hands into their pockets, find a couple quarters and deposit accordingly. But do any of us in the industry actually know what sells papers? Is it Godzilla-esque pictures or headlines? Teasers? Coverage on the issues that matter most to them?

I’m a word guy. I think well-crafted, well-reported stories are more important to fulfilling our service to the community than pictures or gigantic headlines. Especially in this era of “bigger is better” and less (content) is more, I suppose I’m in the minoritythere.

But the truth is this: we are living in an era where Reading — and its cousin, Learning — are not just dying, but are becoming taboo. Sure, Joe Schmoe reads, but it’s a headline here, a snippet there. The ability and desire to dig deep into the written word, to dig deep into complex issues has long-since escaped us. And that’s why the written word, the printed press, is slowly nailing itself to a cross. It really is a self-sacrifice. Newspapers still claim to be the authority on local issues ranging from zoning to immigration to water authorities and crime, but the nation’s leading papers — The New York Times being the exception … because it can — do their utmost to bury that important content inside the newspaper, thus making the front page appear like some daily Michelangelo painting, replete with teasers, huge pictures and giant headlines. But, consequently, my life calling is not to graphics and pictures, though I’m adept to these things, but to words on a page. Still, I play along.

Why have even the nation’s largest papers succumbed to such devices? I offer The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as a prime example. The Anderson Independent-Mail as another, which, consequently, has seemingly banished copy altogether from its front page.

This, because the economic situation at many newspapers is that bad, thanks to the 24-hour news cycle on cable television and the general dumbing down of America. Continually, we hear about buyouts, restructuring, etc. within the industry’s leading papers. Photos and graphics become necessary in order for newspaper to compete and not be drowned out in the blare.

Obviously, this speaks to a larger issue: that of our Red Bull-infused, spastic society. And admittedly, I get caught up in the great and rabbit race to nowhere. Frequently, I will catch myself surfing online, and — oooh — something else comes up that I might like to check out, thus diverting my attention from whatever I originally was seeking information about. What was it? I can’t remember. It’s maddening. In another post, I quoted Kurt Cobain on television:

I hardly write any stories and I don’t work on my songs quite as intently as in the past. You know why??? Television Television is the most evil thing on our planet. Go right now to your TV and toss it out the window, or sell it and buy a better stereo. — “Journals,” Kurt Cobain

I posit that the Internet is the new television.

Have any of you heard of The Spectator? It was a short-lived publication in the early-18th century. It was published in an era where coffee houses were hubs of political and societal conversation and learning. People then read as if their lives depended on it, and often, they did. Television, since the late 1930s has served to muck that up. The Internet has mucked it up further. I would argue that the Internet is actually more productive for the educational betterment of society than television, but neither wins a gold star.

Simply, I wish folks today read as if their lives depended on it. We simply have to promote a society that is bent on making reading the printed word a priority. Why? Because, as convenient and good as it may be, the Internet isn’t ironclad. Books in hard copy form are ironclad. Government documents in hard copy form are ironclad. But once they reach the Internet or e-mail, they can be manipulated at will by people who know more than you about Web site security. By way of example, my entire blog, which is on a separate server, completely went down for a few hours yesterday I can only assume, by a hacker.

I’m not optimistic that such a society will emerge in the near future — our society will continue wind-blown into its own technological tailspin — but I am committed to at least trying, in as much as I can, to focus people to more hard copy learning. I say that while admitting that any kind of learning and reading, virtual or not, is benefitial.

The most efficient studying takes place, I feel, not when one is, in tandem, listening to music, playing an online solitaire game and reading some essay for class, but when one is sitting upright at a kitchen table, hunched over a book — with nothing as a distraction — with, perhaps, only a cup of coffee as company. Such a commitment will assist in building a society again more focused on the printed word, one more focused on dissecting and vetting the complex issues that confound us.

About the Author

Jeremy Styron
Jeremy Styron
I am a newspaper editor, op-ed columnist and reporter working in the greater Knoxville area. This is a personal blog. Views expressed here are mine and mine alone.

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