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The road to journalistic hell is paved with blandness

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It appears that Our Mainstream Newspapers are not the only print medium needing a overhaul. Alternative weeklies, one argument goes, aren’t that alternative or opinionated. Both need change — and fast.

In a nice read, Neva Chonin of the San Francisco Chronicle commented on the state of the alternative weekly in the aftermath of the Village Voice/New Times “merger” (see here and here):

A true alternative publication is informed by the politics of dissent, and New Times dissents from nothing. In fact, the company prides itself on never taking a political stance. Ever. If alt-weeklies are watchdogs meant to nip at the heels of the establishment, New Times’ weeklies are un-housebroken puppies, peeing on everything and shredding the furniture because, well, it sure is entertaining.

Compare Chonin’s screed with this from Attytood on the fate of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

[M]uch of the blame really lies with us, as journalists. We have, for the most part, allowed our product to become humorless and dull. In an era when it seems most people truly will be famous for 15 minutes, newspapers have stubbornly avoided creating personalities…or having a personality, for that matter. In a pathologically obsessive quest for two false goddesses – named Objectivity and Balance – we have completely ceded the great American political debate to talk radio, cable TV and the Internet, where people have learned that politics is actually interesting and even fun when people are allowed to take sides.

We prefer to talk down to the public rather than talk to them. Even at our very best – and there are many, many talented newspaper journalists in America – we are more likely to aim at wooing contest judges than at wooing new readers. And we have a knee-jerk tendency to defend our narrow world of messy ink printed on dead trees, when instead the time is here to redefine who we are and what we do.

We are, and can continue to be, the front-line warriors of information — serving up the most valuable commodity in a media-driven era. But that means we must be the message, not the medium, and so we must adjust to give consumers news in the high-tech ways that they are asking for, not the old-tech way that we are confortable with.

If we don’t change, we will die – and it will be our fault.

I see two problems that I personally have to face because I teach journalism, and, presumably, the students I teach will be charged with fixing these messes.

First, the definition of news has become what readers want. The extent to which journalism continues to do that is the extent to which Western Civilization Sinks Out Of Sight. People still need to know stuff that they may not know they need.

Second, the act of presenting news has become more important than the news itself. No wonder newspapers have become boring. Throw a jazzy layout at the masses and they’ll be happy, it appears.

Journalism is about making judgments. If journalists cede judgment on newsworthiness to others, they cede their relevance as well. That personality that Attytood argues is lost will return when journalism makes harder choices about the content it presents to readers, viewers and browsers. Blandness leads to boredom, and that leads to increasing irrelevance.


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

October 31, 2005 at 12:42 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. What are some actions newspapers are taking to keep their audience. What do you think is the worst thing that can happen to newspapers? These are just a couple of questions.
    Jonathan Ter Meer
    PS-these were some questions I had from last class.


    October 31, 2005 at 9:20 pm

    • Jonathan,
      The answers to these questions largely lie with you and your demographic, assuming newspapers will listen and adapt.
      What information do you want? In what form do you want it? When do you want it? Also: How will you know what information you NEED versus what you want?
      The worst thing newspapers can do is to fail to change. Some argue, such as the illustrious lullabypit, that the duo of Objectivity and Balance ought to be cast aside. Others argue that newspapers should do a better job of being relevant (whatever that means).
      Your generation, methinks, will make or break the future of newspapers as they currently exist. For you, that’s two questions. As a comsumer, what do you want? As a potential worker in the communication industries, what skills, bodies of knowledge and attitudes do you need to acquire to guide those changes?

      Dr. Denny

      October 31, 2005 at 9:32 pm

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