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American Journalism Review
Why Are so Many Newspapers Boring?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    TOP OF THE REVIEW    
From AJR,   July/August 1995

Why Are so Many Newspapers Boring?   

Rigid formats and a loss of p.m. papers' guerrilla warfare may have drained the zest.

By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     


Newspapers are dull. They're losing their touch. It's not enough to be modestly respectable, cautiously paced and profitable. For the long term, dull is a downer.

I'm missing the snap, crackle, pop. Not just "the sizzle" that we still may find in one compelling story, but the energy, jump, surprise, seduction and gratification that once hit us on a good day on a good front page or a good page 16.

Here are some shots from the hip about what went wrong.

First shot:

We miss the scramble to get an evening paper written and printed by early afternoon, with a first "evening" edition on the streets before that morning's coffee break.

Maybe we lost something because nobody has to get up by 5:00.

Maybe we lost it when we stopped staffing a few beats overnight so there would be wheat and chaff for the editors, reporters and rewritemen who got up at 5:00.

Maybe we lost it when there were no longer seven real editions.

(OK. These are the rumblings of one still scarred by early exposure to the work of an evening paper: a callow and impressionable kid gone to the Big City. And, yes, I know of the evening papers that were the stodgy behemoths because they owned the territory, or else shadowy creations of their morning brethren, rather than the guerrillas. But when they were good they were wonderful. When they were good they drove lazy morning papers to get a life, to shake a leg – made them better.)

Second shot:

Excessive formatting, standardization and order have made papers duller. Boring. Bore, bore, bore.

These papers have their big spreadsheet news summaries, full of briefs that are neatly aligned but lifeless, without the least verve or spark, no mischief, no zest, no nothing.

Bored writers do these just the way their bored editors want them done. It's as if the Wall Street Journal had never shown us how.

They have their perfect formatting. Just so. Order. Readers now are supposed to know just where to find everything. But what if there's nothing to make them want to look?

They have their color, obsessively standard in its uses, with a few exceptions. But what are they doing with it? (The New York Times, still edging into color like some Victorian lady with a toe in an icy lake, already has shown us some things that could have been done all along.)

Third shot:

After middle-level editors were turned into printers and synthesizers and order-keepers, what with all the encoding and other scutwork brought about by new technology, some papers never recovered, never learned how to free editors to be editors again.

One wishfully imagines an editor stalking around the newsroom with a head full of ideas, notions about how to do it all, maybe a swashbuckler. The Editor. A mind in charge, every day. (There are some around, of course.)

Fourth shot:

What happened to the story count? It's there only if you count all those obsessive summaries and standard little nubbins required by the formats, the clean order of this contemporary news landscape.

Dull. Boring, boring, boring. l

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