A loss of style

Newspapers (credit: http://www.carerssupportmerton.org.uk/)Whether you’re sitting or standing, indoors or out, leaning against a hitching post or planting your brogans on a desk, a newspaper gives you a whole rich vocabulary of gesture. You open it with a flourish and a ripple of newsprint, your buoyant self-confidence evident in the way you turn the pages with a snap of the wrist, taking in the gray matter swiftly, your eyes dancing over the world’s sorrows and moving on, crinkling the page, snapping it, rolling it, folding the paper in halves and quarters, tucking it under the arm or tapping it against the palm. – Garrison Keillor, Star Tribune, Jan 14, 07

I read the newspaper today. No – a real newspaper. A glorious stack of fragrantly printed material. It was the Star Tribune, if you want to get specific – a newspaper that has style pouring out of its pages like sap from a very knowledgeable tree.

I forgot what it was like, really, to read a newspaper and actually glean a bit of substance from it. We’re subscribers to the Argus Leader – the Sioux Falls newspaper. And over the past year or so, we’ve been conditioned to think the art of newspaper writing and style is going, well, out of style.

We started getting the paper part for the content and part for the romance. Waking up each day to a newspaper is one of life’s most overlooked treasures. It’s just like Garrison says – there’s a style in opening and reading a paper. It’s an act that gives off an aura of cool. We looked forward to this coolness every morning; we could read it while eating breakfast, and we could pick it back up at lunchtime to finish.

But the Argus is losing readership. The solution, apparently, is to dumb down the content. Make the words bigger. Have more opinion, both from unqualified readers and random bloggers and message board trolls. Show more candid photographs from Grandma’s collection.

How did this happen? How did our dream of an informed newspapership get flushed down the drain so quickly? The Argus Leader barely makes it through breakfast anymore. The only time I read it at lunch is if someone else mentions a typo or glaring mistake in its pages that I somehow missed.

First of all, instead of improving the quality of the writing, the Argus has dumbed it down. Instead of writing about things that a newspaper reader would care about, the topics are geared towards the average American. An American that gets his or her news from the Internet or from the morning news. Not from a newspaper. In other words, the Argus is searching for an audience that is tuned out to words on paper.

The newspaper isn’t dying. There will always be people who will long for the touch and smell of the actual, physical product. But it is dwindling. And no amount of change can help that. It’s part of a shift in culture. Films and theatre didn’t die when the television showed up. But it did dwindle, and a higher level of production was needed to make them seem more important than their new rival – more prestigious. More exclusive. A place for high quality articles and a Sunday morning ritual.

Instead of changing to meet the customers it desires – customers who have no intentions of subscribing to a newspaper that now nearly resembles a simple city-sponsored newsletter – a newspaper would do better sticking to its guns and improving upon what it does best.

Which means not championing its accomplishments in order to justify its journalistic integrity. Which means not pandering to the lowest common denominator. Which means not wasting an entire page with pictures of children reaching into a cereal box or riding a bike.

I like the idea of getting the paper each morning. And I have an interest in the advertisements that are running on an occupational level. But I can say that soon – probably sooner than we really expect – we will no longer be Argus Leader subscribers.

We miss being entertained. Informed. Excited. Impressed.

Now we’re just usually bored. Enraged. Disappointed.

Garrison says, in today’s Star Tribune, that for newspaper readers, every section is Style.

I wish someone would have told that to the people at the Argus Leader.

This was lovingly handwritten on January 14th, 2007