Sunday, June 7, 2009

Do We Have an Editor?

Today’s self-referential column by Sun Media Group president Derek Dunn-Rankin kicks off with a 20-point hed question: “Do we have a future?”

To reach the story, readers must digest this headline’s silly question. They must pass through the navel-gazing, first-person voice it establishes. They’ll have to forgive that it ignores a general prohibition against questions in heds. And, they must overlook its yes-no fallacy.

But for all its failings, the headline isn’t what set Old Word Wolf abarking. The noise started about halfway down in the column, where the president of the paper attempts to answer his own question: “Nothing matches a well-edited relevant local newspaper in helping us understand and enjoy our community.”

OWW couldn’t agree more. So let’s see how the “well-edited relevant” part is working. We start by mentioning the missing comma, but that’s the least of the irony.

Instead of opening with something fresh on a tired topic (1.1 million Google hits for the phrase “the future of newspapers”), this large-press owner expects to grab readers with one of the topic’s most overused clichés: Mark Twain’s “reports of my death are greatly exaggerated” (69,000 Google hits for “Newspapers” AND “reports of my death”). As recently as April 13, San Diego News Network’s top executive, Barbara Bry, hauled out the same cliché to kick off her “Shop Talk” opinion piece on the subject in the industry organ, Editor & Publisher, a publication that inside sources tell me regularly lands on the boss’s desk.

Other things a real editor might have caught, questioned and repaired in a well-edited, relevant, local newspaper:

-- Newspapers prospered over the last 60 years, as we became a nation of consumers. (There’s that missing comma, tucked where it’s not needed. And, another cliché.)
-- Buying habits were driven by advertising. (Unnecessary passive voice; wordy. Are not buying habits still ad-driven for the most part? I mean, how are we going to buy something we’ve never heard about?)
-- Google has not a single reporter or editor. (Apples and oranges fallacy. A search engine’s job isn’t journalism. And, the blue pencil guy/gal might gently note that Google actually does employ editors, and quite of few of them at that. Ask Google.)
-- A dedicated staff of former and current employees has helped us navigate rough and rocky terrain. (Hmmm. Former employees are assisting the Dunn-Rankin family in their private enterprise? Is he trying to remind readers or trying to sidestep mention of the multiple rounds of mass firings he instigated in the last 18 months?)
-- Our circulation is at an all-time high ... (Unsupported assertion. The writer provides no supporting data; readers are expected to take his word for this. Sharp-thinking readers will recognize that newspapers still strongly appeal to an older population, and his is the only one – a monopoly – available in one of the nation’s greyest markets.)
-- The writer claims “we offer more content to our readers” than daily newspapers he reads in Jacksonville, Orlando, Miami, Fort Myers, Bradenton, Lakeland, and Tampa. (Unsupported assertion number two. Further, the average reader is likely to be unsure what “more content” actually measures. I know I am. He probably counts the two sorry partial pages of three-graf bitties that have been assembled as “Northern Report” and “News Across America.” Until recently, those items ran without headlines because the publisher – Derek’s son -- said writing heds was time consuming and printing them took up space. Fortunately, that policy has been revised. But I digress.)
-- Newspapers ... reach more adults every day and every week than any other single advertising buy. (Unsupported assertion number three. This reader suspects a single ad buy in AARP magazine, a single ad buy on a super bowl day or any random Oprah show will reach far more adults than a full page Thursday insertion in the Charlotte Sun. )
-- As Internet advertising became fashionable with the young professionals who manned the advertising agencies, the industry was hit by the worst depression since the 1930s. (I can overlook the missing AP apostrophe as local style. But "fashionable?" Surely a strange way to express “effective,” “accessible,” “efficient” or any other of a wide selection of quasi-measures that would be more appropriate. And what’s with “manned?” Sexism in writing is nearly always caught by a good editor. "Staffed" would work just as well.)

There’s more, but that’s enough for Old Word Wolf’s first day back on the job.

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