1. Good headlines are golden. “Leaving Iraq is a Feat That Requires an Army” (A-1, New York Times, October 9). I read that and was hooked. The story delivered on the hed’s promise, and I read to the end, satisfied I’d learned something. Contrast that with “A Slow March to Change; VMI is Steeped in Traditions Dating to 1839. Until 1997, Female Cadets Weren’t Part of Them” (A-1, Washington Post, October 15). This screamed “don’t read me.” Not that the hed is terrible; rather, it nicely previews the story, a deeply reported piece by a journalist I admire who got inside a tough-to-report-on, transitioning institution. But why this story now? The A-1 portion had no news hook and the full-page spread inside looked like a time sink. I skipped it.
2. Good reporting is essential. I am drawn into stories by their precision, detail, authority, and the introduction of facts I didn’t previously know. Generalizations, especially overly broad nut graphs not immediately supported, annoy me. When I sense an editor-driven story, I breeze right on by. I am finding I particularly don’t like “how we live” stories, such as the daily bombardment of anecdotal pieces on people trying to get the swine flu vaccine. Ditto faux-trend stories, like “Breakfast Can Wait. The Day’s First Stop is Online” (A-1, New York Times, August 10). It relied on too-thin evidence for its broad conclusions, according to the Times’s own public editor, Clark Hoyt, in his August 16 column. I used to assign these kinds of stories when I was an editor; now, I often find them wastes of space as writers stretch to make something new out of very little.
3. Good writing is born of good reporting. This is the reason why I subscribe to newspapers, the glory spot: the stories most worth telling, well told. They are the best expression of our free-speech democracy. The truly impressive story may appear only once a week or once a month. But they are there, making the paper a bargain at twice the price or more. Examples are too numerous to count. The most recent: I read every word of a two-part series, “The Damage Done: When Heroin Hits Home”, published in The Washington Post’s Style section November 3 and 4. It wasn’t news—the paper had covered in detail the deaths of four high school students who overdosed on heroin—but the narrative captured the terrifying reality and made a visceral connection with me and, I suspect, with every parent of a teenager who read it. It never generalized. It wasn’t larded with quotes from “experts.” No fancy prose. It let its reporting speak.
So, with all this good stuff, why are newspapers nose-diving?
Time is their greatest enemy.
At least it is in my house. If I miss that 8 a.m. window to read the papers, it’s likely they’ll never get read. And then I feel guilty. And when I feel guilty I think about all the wasted trees and I ponder cutting back to just one paper. I find I’m guiltier still when I have only a short amount of time available to read, as I flip through the pages getting only a taste of the feast, a glance at all I’m leaving on the plate.
The average U.S. newspaper reader spends thirty-nine minutes a day with newspapers, according to the most recent biennial news-consumption study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, published in August 2008. There are figures showing that the average person spends just thirteen minutes a day with newspapers, but those include the growing contingent of non-newspaper readers. Those non-newspaper readers? I believe they won’t come back. For the dailies to thrive they need people like me.
And there’s a problem with that. I positively, absolutely hate it when I have just thirty-nine minutes or fewer to read the papers. My whole experience changes in an ugly way. I kind of wish I hadn’t even taken them out of the wrappers.