“Heeeere’s the Newspaper”  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   March & april 2011

“Heeeere’s the Newspaper”   

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The Omaha World-Herald hires a former “Tonight” show writer as an A-section humor columnist. Posted: Thu, Feb. 24, 2011

By Jeffrey Benzing
Jeffrey Benzing (jbenzing@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     


There is generally no shortage of one-liners in the nation's newsrooms. But not many of them wind up on page two of the A section.

Except in Omaha.

On Valentine's Day, former "Tonight" show writer Brad Dickson launched "Breaking Brad," a collection of quips about current events that runs Tuesday through Saturday in the Omaha World-Herald.

"It's very easy to read and get a chuckle," Thad Livingston, the paper's sports editor, says of the new column. Livingston has worked with Dickson since 2008, when the 15-year "Tonight" show veteran started writing a once-a-week sports humor column. "What he does is similar to cartooning -- the thought process is the same, I think."

Dickson, 51, will still write for the sports section, contributing among other things a week-in-review piece on Sunday in which he'll lampoon such topics as Lithuanian barrel jumping and the World Series of Beer Pong.

Mike Reilly, the paper's executive editor, says he's aware that using a precious newsroom position on a comedy writer might make some people uneasy. But he says the World-Herald has been hiring reporters to cover serious fare over the last year and will stay focused on the facts.

"We're a hard-news newspaper A to Z," Reilly says, "but we recognize that part of life is humor."

The paper wasn't hiring when Dickson started as a freelance contributor in 2008. But the World-Herald, which like many news outlets had downsized in the face of a punishing recession and the advent of the Internet era, is now adding rather than subtracting staff.

There's no doubt that Dickson, who started writing freelance for Jay Leno in 1990 when he was still filling in for Johnny Carson, will offer a change of flavor.

Here's some of what readers saw in the first week:

Wisconsin Democrats walked out in protest of "a matter of life and death importance to all citizens of Wisconsin" -- inferior brats.

Fresh off his winning Super Bowl performance, Usher is bringing his OMG tour to Omaha . And, off their Super Bowl performance, the Black Eyed Peas are on the road with their L.A.M.E. tour.

On Valentine's Day I was involved in a lot of touching, caressing and fondling ; then I cleared airport security.

There is some grumbling among purists in the newsroom, but Livingston said he's heard something else, too. "People are throwing out one-liners in the vein of Jay Leno," he says. "It's catching on."

Dickson left the "Tonight" show in 2005. During the next several years, he co-wrote two books and contributed to the Los Angeles Times. In 2008, he decided to launch a humor column and cold-called a handful of newspapers -- mostly on the West Coast, but also in Omaha, his hometown -- about running his jokes.

Livingston liked the material, but when he checked out Dickson's résumé, he feared the price tag would be too steep. But Dickson explained that while another paper was interested, "they wouldn't pay him at all, and he didn't think that was a very good deal."

So for $50 a pop, the sports section began running a bunch of Dickson's one-liners.

For instance:

A high school baseball team in Orlando cut a double amputee pitcher with an 80 mph fastball because "he's slow covering bunts." Vince Lombardi, Ty Cobb, Jack Tatum and Mussolini phoned in from the afterlife to call the coach "heartless."

Jerry Jones got permission from the NFL to count people outside the stadium as part of the total Super Bowl attendance. Nebraska basketball should try that.

On Thursday the Huskers play 6-6 Washington again in the Holiday Bowl. I'm assuming the full name is the No Doze Holiday Bowl.

Dickson, who lives in Las Vegas but is moving back to Omaha next month, says he was writing for fun, not so much for the paycheck. "I made more when I was delivering the paper back in 1972," he recalls.

About a year ago, Dickson began adding jokes on subjects beyond the world of sports, and "Breaking Brad" grew out of that expanded mission.

Reilly says he hopes Dickson's jests will attract readers both to the print product and to Omaha.com, the World-Herald's Web site, which had 1.2 million unique visitors in January.

With the advent of the new column, everything's fair game: politicians, local celebrities, even the virtually sacred subject of University of Nebraska football.

Finding enough material to keep readers laughing six days a week can be challenging. But the process, Dickson says, is pretty much what he was doing when he was writing for TV. Mostly, it involves closely following current events.

"You turn on CNN and see who screwed up overnight -- you know, which athlete got caught in a car with a prostitute," Dickson says.

Says Livingston, "He's a newshound. Frequently I'm reading things, and I'm like, 'How did I miss that?' "

Eventually the column might feature narrative writing and commentary -- Livingston says the paper will challenge Dickson to reinvent himself -- and the writer says he wouldn't mind showing his audience that he's a "real" writer.

Early feedback has been largely positive, Reilly says, though there are a handful of vocal critics. "I had one person try to equate our hiring of Brad to the downfall of newspapers and Western civilization."

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