Let me explain what’s wrong with newspapers, which are losing circulation faster than the Arctic is molting ice. I know something about newspapers. I was a paperboy. Later, but not by much, I owned one, which several friends and I started from scratch. Then we bought a second weekly to create the smallest media chain in the Western Hemisphere.
We were country journalists first and business people second. When in doubt, we’d hire another 22-year-old reporter to cover the next one-horse hamlet. Sometimes I’d come into the office in the morning and find a fledgling scribe asleep on a layout table, using a roll of paper towels for a pillow. The local Masons rented the floor above us, and once a week, while we were trying to satisfy the public’s right to know, they’d be stomping about as if they were practicing “Riverdance.”
The Gazette and The Compass of southeastern Connecticut carried the obligatory oh-so-serious stuff: stories on sonorous school board meetings or nasty debates about septic lagoons. A ruddy-faced dairy farmer sat on the board, and he’d be asleep before the minutes from the last meeting were regurgitated. We liked him so we never reported that. Our most popular feature, however, was the police blotter. Don’t let readers tell you they don’t feast on bad news, alleged or otherwise.
We published scathing editorials, too, written with the fervor and wisdom that less than three decades on earth can impart. The looming midnight deadline inspired us to unimaginable heights of purple prose.
We had fun, both in and out of print. Where is it written that a newspaper must be terminally serious? Take your modern editorial page and those adjacent op-ed rants—please! You’d think that the human race had two weeks to live, and that humor was heresy. When was the last time an opinion piece made you laugh— I’m talking intentionally now?
Our editorial page included a signed column by The Ancient Editor. He was 116, omniscient, and way too candid. He ranted and offended everyone he could, including us “whippersnappers.” He teased our readers, savaged our competitors, and pulled more legs than a disgraced Congressman. He could be quite funny, if I do say so myself.
The humor wasn’t confined to the editorial pages. When two of our reporters got married, we closed the announcement with “A January divorce is planned.” The town’s grandest grande dame marched into our office forthwith, caterwauling at our flippancy. We politely stood by our flippancy. My guess is she never missed an issue, checking every page for our next atrocity. Don’t baby your readers: They won’t respect you in the morning.
Every April 1, we ran a fake story or three (some claimed we ran several every week). More than a few readers didn’t care for it. The main thing was we liked it. When times were hard—we gave birth to The Gazette in a raging recession and survived the 1979 gas crisis and a second recession in the early 1980s—we didn’t lay off reporters. Somehow we knew that giving our readers less wasn’t the answer.
The bottom line is this: Newspaper publishing should be a high calling and an adventure. Readers can tell if your heart’s not in it or if you’re counting beans at their expense. Get lively and have some fun.Value good writers and pay them. Don’t pander to your subscribers. Surprise them. Running this column would be a good start.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 29, 2006, edition of The Christian Science Monitor and is reprinted with the permission of David Holahan.