There’s been a lot of buzz lately about the struggling newspaper industry, from Time magazine, to The Daily Show, to two recent episodes of On the Media, to the effective folding of two major American newspapers, the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and the Post-Intelligencer in San Francisco. Much of the discussion has been about paying real money for real journalism, a concept which seems to make good sense, especially when one takes a good look at some of the stuff that is out there for free — and not just on the web, mind you. Take a look at any of the free dailies one can pick up entering the subway on a weekday morning in any major city. These are like print versions of the news-aggregating web sites that have come up a great deal in conversations about the struggling newspapers, as they are basically just AP stories dressed up with some layout and photographs, each article no lengthier than one can expect to be able to read between stops. In DC, where I was recently for a research trip, I had the chance to experience express, the freebie version of the Washington Post, which largely seems to exist to create ad revenue and help people plan a night on the town. While its stories are DC-focused, lending it the air of a local operation, pretty much all the bylines are (predictably) AP.
While it was nice to have a little sweetened-condensed version of the day’s major stories handed to me at the beginning of my commute, a closer look at the publication really made me wonder whether these free short-attention-span papers are really the way to go. Set good journalism aside for a second, even: let’s just talk basics, like headlines and copyediting. Contemplate the following teaser, which appeared on the first page of the “Look*out” section (“*trends, culture, discoveries, ideas, people” — i.e. the fluffy, or rather fluffier, part, where the puzzles and comics and celebrity gossip are), page 31 of the March 13th edition of express:

Bristol Palin and finance split up

Now, when I read this first off, I parsed it as it was supposed to read, i.e., that Bristol Palin and fiancé Levi Johnson had called off the wedding. But then I took a second look and realized that it said “finance,” not “fiancé,” and I wondered if there were a story here I didn’t know about, presumably regarding the economic situation: perhaps Bristol was sick of hearing about finance and had told Wall Street she’d had it with them, or had dropped out of an econ class she was taking. I was intrigued. I turned to page 34 to find the story.
Of course, it was about Bristol and Levi calling things off, and had nothing whatsoever to do with finance or economics, apart from having presumably been typed in by some addled headline writer who has written so many economy-related headlines of late that he has the word “finance” imprinted into his keyboarding motor memory — and then the copyeditor (if there was one) fell face-down on the job.
If otherwise reputable news organizations (this was a publication of the Washington Post after all, even if it was news-lite) can’t even do decent copyediting on their headlines, then things are far worse than I feared.
It did make me laugh, though. And on the morning commute, I suppose that is priceless indeed.


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