The Second Time Around
Challenging newspaper conventions of the past
By Thomas Kunkel
The philosopher Alanis Morissette had it right: You live, you learn.
Thomas Kunkel (firstname.lastname@example.org), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
Years ago, a colleague of mine came into work one afternoon looking like the loser in a WWF Smackdown.
"What's the matter with you?" said I with a snort. "Your wife leave you?"
"Yes," he replied.
Well, I immediately put that particular witticism in the closet and have never pulled it back out. What can I say? I'm a quick study. Maybe I get it from my grandmother--the one who, as a small child, was puzzled by the fact that her mom always licked her finger before touching the iron. Such wasted motion. So one day, when no one was looking, the precocious tot simply licked the iron itself.
Only time she ever did that.
Yes, there's nothing like experience. I was reminded of that reading Carl Sessions Stepp's fascinating story in AJR's April issue ("If I Went Back...") in which he asked former editors what they would do differently if they were back running a newsroom. A lapsed newspaper editor myself, I like to think my experience as a news consumer would embolden me as a born-again news deliverer. I hope I'd have the courage to challenge some of the conventions that guided me a decade ago.
For starters, I'd devote a section of my new paper, every day, to teens. This section would contain a lot of the entertainment matter we already provide, but also news written by kids themselves, stories reprinted from local high-school papers and a teen's-eye perspective on the issues of the day. This is our future audience, but if you look in the typical daily for stories teens actually might want to read, there's precious little there. Sure, we write about them--their test scores, how they cope with divorce, whether or not they should get sex education in the classroom--but almost none of it is from their own point of view.
If teens knew they had a place of their own every day, they might actually dig into the paper for it. And when they were done, mom and dad might peek into it as well.
I would try to edit the paper differently. As I suggested in this space last month, I would tighten most stories to leave length for the dramatic and important pieces that demand it. I would try to get the sheer number of stories up, to create a greater sense of activity. I would emulate the example of the International Herald Tribune, which draws from the best of the New York Times and Washington Post. It's not a large paper in terms of bulk, but it is extraordinarily well edited for pace and variety. I always put it down feeling satisfied.
I would run serials--journalistic narratives when I could get them, and fiction from the wonderful writers of my region. People who enjoy reading newspapers enjoy reading, period. No reason we can't give 'em some smart fiction and maybe discover the next Charles Dickens in the process.
My paper would have a heavy run of local columnists, who do so much to personalize an impersonal product. And they would help achieve another priority, which is to convey life the way it's lived on the streets, not the way some hermetically sealed assistant city editor thinks it's lived.
At the same time I'd pay a lot more attention to public agencies. Yes, I used to be one of those editors who moaned about boring, "incremental" government stories--and many of them were just that, boring and incremental. But they can be better done, and they had better be done, before we forget how. The price we pay for neglect of this public trust is awful. For another reminder, turn to page 18 for Charles Layton and Jennifer Dorroh's latest survey of the dismal situation in our statehouses.
My paper would devote much greater emphasis to context, analysis, even old-fashioned Q-and-As. Hey, if you haven't heard, today's world is complicated. While it's safe to assume most people get the "what" of the day's headlines via TV, radio or the Web, the only place they can possibly get the "why," at least without waiting for next week's Time or U.S. News, is in my paper.
I would devote at least a page a day to work, cars, commuting and traffic. Another page would be reserved for you – your letters, your e-mails, your voice messages, your commentaries.
I'd also run more photographs, which I can do because improved technology lets me run them smaller than I used to. And in color. If the New York Times can do it, so can I.
I only see one problem with my great new paper: How do I make it all happen?
For that I would fall back on convention. I'd leave it to my managing editor.###