There's nothing like a Tennessean memonot only to brighten up my workday with its elements of unintentional comedy, but to highlight in just a few succinct paragraphs some trenchant problems with daily journalism today. The latest memo basically admits that the paper treats and looks at news as a way to lure the demographics advertisers want. That's why stories about golf and "Flameworthy" videos land on the front page, while important news about local and state government is about as prominent as Steve Guttenberg at Cannes.
In the memo, Tennessean editors discuss the mission of the front page, which one would think, is self-evident: Cover the big stories from the day before, plus offer occasional enterprise pieces or well-written narratives. But the memo has a different take entirely. Instead, the focus is on Gannett's "Real Life, Real News" initiative wherein the goal is to improve circulation basically by giving people what they want. The problem with this approach is that it appeals to the lowest common denominator and demeans those who want to know more about the world than just how Friends ends. Here are a few excerpts from the memo:
"The top half of Page One is designed to drive single-copy sales.
Target Audience Daily and Sunday: Single-copy buyers, particularly 18- to 34-year-old males on Sunday.
Secondary Audience All readers."
Well, there you have it, literally in black and white: If you're not an 18- to 34-year-old male, The Tennessean sees you as part of its "secondary audience." Good times.
"Key topics: The key topics list indicates news subjects we know are important to this community. They may or may not be represented on any given front page, depending on the flow of news.
2. How my tax dollars are spent
3. Growth, development and the environment
4. Health and fitness
5. Places to go/things to do"
Could you imagine an in-his-prime John Seigenthaler spending more than 10 seconds on a list of key topics for his reporters and editors? Good journalists have an innate nose for news. They know whether a squabble between a Metro Council member and a mayor should be buried in the local section, or if it could affect legislation and therefore deserve a spot on the front page. They don't need some desk jockey offering a vague cookie-cutter list of issues. Besides, what's the difference between topic one, "education," and topic two, "how my tax dollars are spent"? Doesn't one fall under two? Actually, doesn't just about everything fall under number twofrom road construction on Bell Road to the war in Iraq? Finally, should topic four, "health and fitness," and five, "places to go/things to do," be considered a recurring source of front-page news? Isn't this why we have the "Living" section?
"How Page One will incorporate Real Life, Real News
Headlines on stories and promos will be written conversationally and emphasize the impact or potential impact on readers, making it clear why they should care or how they can cope or make a difference.
Stories will tell readers why they should care, give them the context, tell them what's nextfor the issue at hand and in the paper's coverage.
Promos will emphasize those inside stories and features that most strongly represent RLRN principles."
In this passage, The Tennessean's top brass demystify the heretofore arcane concept of a headline and what its purpose is. The paper also discusses what constitutes a "story." Thanks guys. I can't imagine being a reporter at the Tennessean and having to pretend to take this memo seriously. The sad thing is that the reporters who rightly scoff at this kind of nonsense stagnate, while the half-wits who view this as constructive wind up on Gannett's editor track.
"Sunday: Special attention will be paid to promotional material, with the design of the top half of the page largely geared to single-copy sales."
Well, at least they're honest about it....