7 Things Newspapers Must Do

… to barely compete with media that does it better.

Newspapers are never going to return to their heyday circulation. But like radio and printed books and movie theaters, they will find a new and stable level of devoted audience. That doesn’t mean, however, that they have to perpetuate weak practices formed only by the past. Here are some very specific ideas to get with the times.

7. At the beginning of opinion pieces, state the writer’s affiliation.

Typically, you read the headline of an opinion piece and then ask yourself whether the person writing it is a conservative or liberal. Then you try to figure it out. And to do so, you look for more information. The newspaper buries it at the end. Stop this idiotic bullshit. Put the affiliation immediately after the author’s name.

6. Have the editor describe the political leaning of each opinion piece author’s affiliation.

OK; you’ve played the game; you found the author’s little byline hidden at the end of the opinion piece. Now you have to figure out whether the “Daughters of Independent Thinkers of Democratic Independence and Honor” is a conservative or liberal generator of editorial content. (Hint: names like this are conservative.) This requires something absent in the blogosphere… something that subscribers of newsprint pay for. It’s called editing. Yes, the editor — the person who claims to maintain the intellectual decorum of the printed word — needs to make the call and tell the audience whether the writer’s obscure affiliation is known for interpreting every single concept in a conservative or liberal way. Yes, those are the only two options. And yes, the editor needs to edit; perhaps in the past, editing consisted of sitting behind the bulletproof glass and never saying anything committal, but no longer; add value, or move along. Again, put this explanation right after the author’s name/affiliation.

5. Put image captions immediately adjacent to, or embedded in images.

Simple thing, this one. I read the New York Times a lot… well, I look a the pictures a lot. And I have to search all over the page to find the explanations for the pictures — they’re called captions. For some reason a lot of newspapers stick to the antiquated habit of grouping captions in a far-away paragraph. This is a simple difference between the antiquated newspapers and their newer competition, electronic media. Just fix it, wudja? Do you actually WANT TO go extinct, or are you simply good at it and don’t realize it?

4. Support continuity and conversation in letters to the editor.

For about a hundred years it was mildly entertaining and satisfactory to print an article, then follow it up with some monolithic responses — often inane in the name of balance — in the form of letters to the editor. There was no on-going give-and-take; no visible moderation from the editor; no retort from any author that might have started the ruckus; no quantification of the response (it’s called ‘aggregation’ or ‘metrics’ now); no sense of accounting, let alone closure. And it was good; until newspapers went out of business. Fix it before they all do. Have ongoing exchanges as long as the underlying topic is timely.

3. Syndicate a lot more nationally popular columnists.

I get it that dragging wet copies of newsprint around to every home and newsstand is the most expensive part of the business, but if one’s local or regional newspaper can’t provide a few extra pages to print the best thinkers in the business every day or week, where’s the differentiation from the web?

2. Write helpful, descriptive synopses.

I looked it up. ‘Synopses’ is actually the plural of synopsis; who knew? This week’s New York Times opinion section was one of the best I can recall. I wanted to read almost every piece. But every one of them made a game out of the subheading… the real topic description. Here’s the game: they make an artistic, provocative headline for each article; then they come up with a 6-or-fewer-word synopsis that actually explains what the article is about… to the extent that it can or cannot be described in 6 words. If it can’t, too bad. Six words is all ya get. Then they find a random 2-square-inch spot in the snaking columns of the article to embed the sort-of-synopsis. Stop the game already. Write a God-damned synopsis, however many words it takes and — here’s a novel idea — put it immediately after the main headline.

  1. Write rational news and information.

Perhaps you’ve noticed… we’ve lost our capacity for rational information. If the newspapers can’t fight back, who can? Don’t be cowards. For instance, we put up with hearing the stock market price every night as “the Dow is up 23 points” which translates to 0.0012, which translates to 1.2 tenths of a percent (that’s tenths, not whole percents). That is not news. When an index is at 19,000, it is not even news when it is up or down 380 points (2 percent). But we can no longer distinguish absolute from relative information and judge it accordingly. Relative means ‘rational’… as in ratios (one thing divided by another, or one as a proportion of another).

The news is rife with meaningless, irrational, absolute numbers. For instance, it is totally devoid of meaning to hear that such-and-such megacompany was fined $4 million for such-and-such outrageous screwing of the public, unless it is expressed as a ratio of their annual revenue or profit. The newspaper (or radio or any other organization purporting itself to be a news organization) is totally bankrupt of value in so doing. Examples of this problem are endless. Virtually any financial information that is not expressed relatively — rationally — is worthless.

Taking the rationality matter one step further, there is the matter of graphics. The newspaper should include a lot more graphics… charts, graphs, pie charts in particular. Consider just the sibling disasters of runaway healthcare and college costs. Until we can readily picture and agree on the proportion of costs accounted for by various contributing factors, we don’t have the slightest chance of remedying either problem. Only pie charts convey the rational facts.

In fact, I’d like to see “the paper” routinely — every day — include a full page of graphics that interpret every major news issue. Many of the individual charts could be repeated (!) each day — they repeat the 23 point irrational, meaningless, non-movement of the Dow every day, don’t they? — with improvements and adjustments, replaced only when they are no longer pertinent to the most important news.

Jack Bellis is affiliated with no one, but writes liberal rants more often than not. (I’d put this at the top but no one would understand why until the end.)

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