James Warren: US newspapers could do with a little British flair and energy
Sunday 16 August 2009
Little did immigration and customs officials at Heathrow realise that an endangered species had blithely arrived in their midst on his way to a family wedding in Cambridge: a devout American newspaper reader.
I might as well have been a short-tailed albatross or a grey bat, both on endangered lists back in the US. There, newspaper circulation and revenues continue a calamitous decline, with sinking advertising the cause of thousands of journalist layoffs; cuts in newsprint; bankruptcy filings by, and dissolution of, major newspapers; and the quality leader, The New York Times, taking a $250m (£1.51m) loan, at 14 per cent interest, from a Mexican telecommunications baron to keep its ship afloat.
But amid the reflexive industry rationalisations, many involving societal change and the coming of the internet, there's rarely an admission of self-inflicted wounds, including the dreaded Curse of Tedium. Indeed, the country that makes the rest of the world envious of its technological and entertainment creativity, be it Microsoft, Google or Hollywood film studios, needs an emergency boost of British high-energy imagination and flair. We're drowning in editorial sobriety.
I was soon off to my Brit nephew's wedding, but over the three days read lots of papers, including The Independent on Sunday. That week, these pages included a solid effort on the state of manned space travel (tied to the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11); a critical look at the state of the London 2012 Summer Olympics; an exposé on asbestos-laden school building; and a good, if depressing, disclosure on the impact of defence cuts on Britain's military forces in Afghanistan.
Since England were playing Australia in cricket, there was far more on that than a baseball-loving American could imagine; a distinct sense of the head-turning performance of 59-year-old Tom Watson at the British Open; and ample fare on entertainment, including raising the curious matter of why Britain doesn't have that many top-flight comediennes.
What struck me about this paper was its shrewd, engaging and eclectic mix of topics, with a generally alluring design that didn't overwhelm or diminish content. It's a challenge to edit a paper in an internet age and to maintain a distinct, serious persona, and sense of public service mission, while not being oblivious to the more Wild West fare people find, and enjoy, online. You don't want to err on the side of either the funereal or the silly, especially to the increasing American obsession with "utilititarian" fare (the best hot dogs, 43 places to take the kids this weekend, the safest toys, dazzling dinners to concoct in 20 minutes, etc).
By the time I headed back to Heathrow, and had read the Independent's competition, both highbrow and lowbrow, I knew all about Bryan Ferry's pot belly and vacation with his publicist lady friend, 36 years his junior, as well as the latest exposé of misdeeds by the drug-dealing multimillionaire uncle of Prince William's beloved, Kate. There were provocative columns (one, in particular, argued that Watson's second-place finish proved that golf wasn't really a sport), and lots of gossip, speculation about possible soccer transactions, and hard-nosed political columns, with Gordon Brown served up as a two-legged, Scottish piñata.
I came away feeling rather informed – it's an embarrassment how much more international news there is to be found in British newspapers than in the average US paper – and, I dare say, having had some actual fun.
And there is the critical difference.
By and large, there's not much humour or playfulness in the average American paper. Part of that reality involves economics. Our papers became fat and profitable local monopolies after the Second World War. In the process, the distinctly provocative, often ideologically driven, bent of old was cast aside. As the nation became more middle-class, the papers became more middle-of-the-road, trying to attract audiences precisely by not offending the largest number of people possible.
That strategy twinned with a firm belief in most newsrooms that being too colourful, impressionistic or intentionally provocative undermined one's air of authority and legitimacy. By and large, balance meant rarely offending. The premeditatedly provocative tended to be relegated to the occasional serious investigation or editorial, or to the approved ranting of a well-compensated "populist" sports columnist, inveighing on ultimately inconsequential topics.
Alan Mutter, a former colleague and now a newspaper industry analyst/ blogger based in San Francisco, opines mostly on industry economics, but concedes that papers "are filling themselves with the most basic, quickest-to-produce content. It is easier to clip the wire and faster to rewrite a press release than to do the reporting and writing that puts personality into a story. Columnists, critics and opinion pages have largely been deemed nice to have, but not essential. So, they have gone away, robbing papers of their personalities in the bargain."
One need not paint with too broad a brush; there are armies of fine editors and reporters, and American papers are trustworthier than in an ideology-filled past.
But, as dutiful as today's versions are, most need a creative transplant. Tragically, they've become less valuable to their dwindling number of readers. They're sort of like that old Italian football defence, the Catenaccio: sometimes effective but too often deadly boring.
James Warren, the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, is a TV commentator and columnist for The Atlantic monthly website and The Huffington Post
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