How to fix newspapers II: Readers aren’t Ralph Wiggum

(Also see Prelude and Parts I, III, and IV.)

Taking a different approach to news requires looking at the audience in a different way. A traditional newspaper might view its readers as fairly unsophisticated people who have no exposure to news or pop culture elsewhere; as innocents who will faint at bad language; as sponges who will accept whatever the paper gives them, whether or not it’s well-written, well-edited, or interesting. This view ignores major changes in the culture at large.

As Steven Johnson notes in his book Everything Bad Is Good for You, today’s pop culture is far more complex than that of even 15 years ago. Shows like Lost, The Sopranos, and The Simpsons have dozens of characters and plotlines, layers of jokes, and a lack of clichéd handholding that made older shows so literal. Video games require players to juggle dozens of objectives while figuring out how a game’s world and rules work. “All around us the world of mass entertainment grows more demanding and sophisticated, and our brains happily gravitate to that newfound complexity,” Johnson writes.

It’s not just shows and games. Consider “the cultural and technological mastery of a ten-year-old today: following dozens of professional sports teams; shifting effortlessly from phone to IM to e-mail in communicating with friends; probing and telescoping through immense virtual worlds; adopting and troubleshooting new media technologies without flinching,” Johnson writes. “… Their brains are being challenged at every turn by new forms of media and technology that cultivate sophisticated problem-solving skills.” Advertising and public relations, too, are far more sophisticated. The media menu has been greatly expanded for anyone with access to the Internet. Meanwhile, people are exposed to cursing, sex, and violence at ever younger ages.

But as the rest of the culture has become vastly more sophisticated, newspapers generally remain stuck in a bygone era — often willfully so. Instead of ignoring the changes in the audience and culture, an aspirationally non-boring newspaper would embrace them in service of a more interesting, lively news report.

That means assuming readers have a general awareness of the news and culture: sports fans watch SportsCenter and check box scores online, pop culture fans watch Access Hollywood, everyone checks Yahoo or CNN.com at work. This lets you dispense with One-Sentence News or repetitive background and give readers something they haven’t seen already.

It means expecting readers will understand sarcasm and appreciate it if you point out when someone in the news is being silly or lying. Even if newspapers don’t adopt the overt subjectivity some tabloid headlines have, the mindset behind those headlines — a skepticism of empty statecraft and PR, an understanding of the limits of supposed objectivity — can be applied in other ways. For example, a politician’s speech shouldn’t be newsworthy simply for the fact that it was given; a State of the Union address or presidential debate is news only insofar as the politicians say something interesting or surprising. If they do, try running the quote or a comment about the quote rather than a 20-inch non-story.

Looking at readers in a new way also means giving up the “family newspaper” charade. If kids supposedly don’t read the newspaper anymore, why are papers still so prudish when it comes to language? Gustavo Arellano had a great column in the LA Times last week pointing out the absurdity of the Times’ dancing around profanity in two recent stories: the obituary for former Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz, which noted that he resigned in 1976 “after telling an obscene joke that was derogatory to blacks”; and a story about new Times/Tribune Co. owner Sam Zell directing a “two-word obscenity” at an Orlando Sentinel photographer at a staff meeting. Zell had said “fuck you,” and Butz — clearly a prince of a man — had told a “joke” that went, “The only thing the coloreds are looking for in life are tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit.”

Leave aside that the Times (and other papers) purposely avoided telling readers the central points of two stories. Also leave aside the general ridiculousness, as Arellano points out, of him not being “able to print Butz’s joke or Zell’s f-bomb in a Times column criticizing The Times for not printing them in the first place.” Why do newspapers pretend that adults have never heard or spoken a curse word before? I wrote a paper on Holden Caulfield‘s frustration at seeing “fuck” written on a school wall in my ninth-grade English class, for goodness’ sake. It’s ultimately condescending to tell people we think they’re too fragile to hear real language.

Newspapers don’t need to be printing curse words every day to remain relevant. But the language prudishness is a symptom of a wrong-headed view of today’s savvy readers that affects the entire industry. Several years ago, there was a period of near-constant hand-wringing over certain Boondocks strips and whether it was okay to print Doonesbury strips that included the words “son of a bitch,” “turd blossom,” and “f—” (or just —-, it’s hard to tell from this hilarious 2004 Boston Globe story) and references to masturbation.

This line from the Globe story should be newspapers’ epitaph if they don’t make it through the current downturn:

“Like The Boston Globe, the News-Journal published the strip but deleted the ‘F’ and ran four dashes instead of three.”

It boggles the mind that at a time when the Internet was long since ascendant, when circulation was dropping, when newspapers should have been thinking about how to fix themselves, any journalist would have spent time worrying about whether it’s okay for a comic strip aimed at adults to reference the vice president of the United States’ saying “Go fuck yourself” on the Senate floor.

As long as newspapers assume readers are like Ralph Wiggum, those readers are going to decamp for media and publications that treat them as 21st century adults.

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