The Write Stuff
Readers — Remember Them?
By Alan Crawford,
In Memphis, Tenn., a few weeks ago, en route to the old Sun recording studio, I passed the empty office building of the Commercial Appeal newspaper — a sad reminder of the plight of print journalism these days. Within the week, I was in New Orleans, where most of the Times-Picayune editorial staff has been laid off. By the time you read this, yet another print newspaper will have thrown in the towel, leaving writers and editors trying to figure out what to do next and readers seeking news and opinion elsewhere.
These are hard times for journalism, and finding someone — anyone — to blame is not easy or even productive. The ad-based business model for print newspapers has collapsed, and owners are still trying to figure out how to pay for content. Online news sites are also struggling. Until answers are found, a couple of things come to mind.
A Ready Market
First, as long as newspapers, magazines and online sites can’t pay what they used to pay, organizations with stories to tell have a great opportunity to self-publish engaging and useful content.
Second, it might be useful — for newspaper management and for communications professionals of all kinds — to look back to another time when a few smart editors and publishers faced a similar, if by no means as severe, downturn in their business.
In a 1965 review of the late Tom Wolfe’s reportage, Dwight Macdonald, a lively stylist in his own right, tells how an entire generation of captivating voices came to public attention. And readers loved it.
“The genre originated in Esquire [now also embattled] but appears most flamboyantly in the New York Herald Tribune, which used to be a staidly respectable newspaper but has been driven by chronic deficits — and by a competitive squeeze between the respectable, and profitable, Times, and the less substantial but also profitable News — into some very unstaid antics.”
The paper began to showcase colorful, highly individualized stylists such as Wolfe, and before long, the New Journalism, as practiced by Hunter Thompson, Jimmy Breslin, Joan Didion and Gay Talese, among others, was born. Cynics may say this wasn’t enough to prevent the Herald Tribune from closing, too, and they’re right. But these writers — and the editors astute enough to publish them — injected new life in American journalism for half a century. New York and Rolling Stone adopted the same voice, and before long, even Newsweek and Time followed suit.
But the point is that the newspaper took chances, which too few imperiled editors and publishers these days seem willing to do. Too many of them seem to think they can hang on by playing it safe. Too many have refused to adopt the more animated, more conversational and, yes, more opinionated voice characteristic of online journalism. And they’ve succeeded only in boring younger readers who might actually subscribe if given a reason to do so.
There’s an important lesson here for companies and nonprofits who find their written communications ignored by the public, policy-makers or employees. What’s the point of generating lifeless white papers, articles, press releases or social media posts if no one actually reads them? Perhaps it’s time for some unstaid antics in corporate communications.
Remember readers? They matter, and you need to entertain as well as inform.
ANNOYING WORD OF THE MONTH: Journey. David P. Kowal, president of Northboro, Massachusetts-based Kowal Communications, spotted this cringe-inducer waaaay back in January 2018. Kowal, who has an eye and an ear for these irritants and writes well about them in his agency blog,
had this to say:
Life is a journey, alright. And it’s an especially arduous one if you have to listen to banalities like “life is a journey,” “the journey to recovery,” “life is a journey, not a destination,” and other variations. You can find many additional examples on inspirational posters, but it’s not going inspire those of us who dislike clichés and hate to travel. “Life is a journey” has traveled far enough. Let’s retire it.
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Contact Alan Crawford, editor of Impact