Monday, May 26, 2014


I’ve been doing some research that led me into the Toronto Star online archives of the mid-1950s.
It wasn’t any golden age of journalism.
But boy, they knew how to grab readers.
The headline at the top of the post was from the Star’s line story on June 25, 1955. It was screaming, two-deck head across the top of the page, and the story delivered. After a company golf party, the boss - drunk - insisted on driving home. He crashed and died, and other staff following in their cars piled into each other in the confusion. Three people were charged with impaired driving.
 The other headlines were just as catchy, in the truncated style of the day.
“Officer shoots self, give Vancouver chief leave in police probe.”
“Pollution, epidemic feared if strike at Kitchener continues.”
“Peron’s police cheer as young Catholics die defending churches.”
“Gored by bull, Burks Falls farmer dies.”
“Thought help cries game, girls let chum drown.”
“Mystery germ hits Alberta, halts operations.” (Antibiotic-resistant staph infections were already a problem in hospitals.)
And my favorite, “Swimming wolf fights to death with fishermen.” (In fact, the fishermen were in a boat and clubbed the wolf with a paddle, hit it with an anchor, dragged it to shore and, when the animal still wasn’t dead, cut its throat.)
The main art was two photos under the headline “Canadian Girls Win Acclaim for Golf and Posture.” 
All in, there were 16 stories and two fairly large illustrations.
I checked the Star’s current front page the same day I looked at the 1955 paper.
It had four stories. (There are also teasers for inside basketball coverage and coverage of the latest popes to be deemed saints.)
The line story head was “Condo failed to deliver on sales pitch, owners claim.” The other heads were “Under this immigration law, anyone can be a terrorist,” “Special needs kids told to stay home” and “Ukraine crisis: Insurgents in east hold dozens hostage.” 
They are all OK stories. But put them up against the 1955 page, and they seem, well, dull. And instead of a groaning smorgasbord, readers get a limited set menu.
In fairness, the page today is about 40 per cent smaller. Newspapers have been steadily making the page shorter and narrower to reduce newsprint costs. (And for reader convenience, of course, though mostly to save money.)
But still, even with the reduced page size, the editors in 1955 would have presented eight or nine stories. 
A few thoughts leap out. 
First, the people who go on about the great quality journalism in the old days - a decade ago, 40 years ago, a hundred years ago - haven’t actually read the old papers. Then, as now, there was some fine work, a lot of average work and some hackery. 
Second, the papers were a heck of a lot more entertaining and interesting. A story about a killer wolf isn’t great journalism. But it is the kind of item that people will talk about at work, which means that if you don’t read the paper, you’re left out of the conversation.
And third, the 1950s approach seems well-suited to the digital age - generate a lot of different items, package them and troll for readers. A print version of BuzzFeed.
So why did newspapers move away from a formula that worked? Partly, we decided people were getting the headlines and quick hits of a 16-story front page from radio and TV. (This was pre-Internet, though radio had certainly been around for a long time.) The theory was that we would offer more depth to retain readers.
But that also aligned nicely with the work a new generation of university-educated journalists said they wanted to do - in-depth stories about big issues. That’s important, but it doesn’t serve much purpose if people aren’t reading the pieces. 
It would be harder to take the same approach now. You would need lots of keen reporters to chase down the story of the drunken office golf outing gone wrong, and police sources willing to talk. Newspapers can’t afford the reporters, and police would refer you to a communications staffer who would confirm a crash was under investigation and little more.
And the fishermen would likely have grabbed a video of their heroic efforts to kill the wolf, posted it and it would have reached two million views on various platforms and aggregators within 12 hours.
Still, the old Star page is a reminder that in the discussions about newspaper readership (print and online), we should be considering the possibility that some people aren’t reading because we’re not interesting enough.


Anonymous said...

I believe another factor that affected the MSM, esp. is that they were bought by big companies. They lost whatever independence they had, and the journalists had to tow the line. What happened to Marjorie NIcols, who used to work for The Vancouver Sun? It is thought that she left to work back east to work because she was too critical of the BC provincial gov't. We don't have the analysis that we need, we just have quoters. One of the first independent journalists, I F Stone, started his own newspaper, because he wanted to publish what was happening, not what one was told. We need more independent journalists who will tell us and analyze what is happening.

Anonymous said...

Michael Geist has posited an intriguing idea for the future of the CBC.

Tony Martinson said...

Paul, as an avid follower of Twitter, I am forever surprised to watch reporters get into heated, dismissive arguments with people who disagree with them. I know that Twitter is full of trolls. I know that Internet is full of people who like to hear the sound of their own voice. But I'm curious to get your take on whether some of those arguments belie an overly superior attitude that these reporters (I will note Sean Leslie, Keith Baldrey and Tom Fletcher primarily) that their potential audience is too stupid to understand issues. I recognize that professional courtesy would preclude you from criticizing those who are former peers, but doesn't it make sense for reporters to be aware when vast swaths of their potential audience simply don't trust them? Does picking fights - especially when in some of these cases these guys are defending people in authority - only drive a deeper wedge between the media and consumers of their products?1

paul said...

Tony Martinson:
I avoid arguments. I set out some facts and observations. If other people present contrary views, with their facts and observations, then readers can consider both perspectives. There is no need for a back-and-forth debate. If some observations are unpleasant or foolish, they are best ignored.

The Mound of Sound said...

"the people who go on about the great quality journalism in the old days - a decade ago, 40 years ago, a hundred years ago - haven’t actually read the old papers. Then, as now, there was some fine work, a lot of average work and some hackery."

You obviously didn't spend any time in a newsroom 40-years ago. Otherwise you wouldn't make such a ridiculous claim. Of course you anecdotally reference feature or "fluff" stories, not actual journalism.

40-years ago the news industry was far more broadly owned. We understood the perils of excessive concentration of ownership and cross-ownership of news outlets.

I go back a ways. When I began we used manual typewriters. Newspaper reporters covering events such as a fire were accompanied by photographers. When I moved to CBC television we had news cameramen (they were all male for some reason)and some of them were real artists willing to take some pretty dumb risks to get the perfect shot.

When it came to politics, we considered our role adversarial. Unlike today, politicians held a cordial fear for the National Press Gallery. That too has changed.

News today has been subtly transformed from information into messaging. There's rarely any property in facts, information but messaging, facts with added interpretation, that can be commodified. Today's corporate media cartel understands the economics of messaging.

There was a time when we knew that a healthy democracy demanded an informed electorate, something that required a truly free press giving access to the greatest number of voices from the widest range of opinion spanning the far left to the far right and everything in between. Today, just as the political spectrum is shrinking with the NDP abandoning the left, so too is the spectrum of voices and views narrowing.

We used to compete for stories, scoops. Today a lot of news comes via press releases that are written to be "print ready." TV stations are given video and this stuff can actually make its way to the public without attribution.

On RealTime with Bill Maher, a regular feature is a compilation of TV news readers, all of them reciting the same catchy buzz phrase or message obviously fed to their organizations from above and beyond. Nothing turns lies into accepted fact like repetition.

40-years ago we didn't have news organizations, except for the fringe outlets, dedicated to manipulating the audience and manufacturing opinion. We had no FOX News, no Sun news. Thanks to them we even have a term for what they do - "swift boating."

News used to be about determining facts and when we had facts we would call out liars. Look at the false "debate" over climate change that has been perpetuated by today's "he said/she said" journalism.

I could go on but I won't. There's plenty more that I could add to demonstrate that your claim that news 40-years ago was no better than news today is pure fucking bullshit.

paul said...

It might be useful to spend a few hours in the local library going through the microfilms of newspapers from the mid-70s.

Anonymous said...

The future of Journalism ?

"We’re looking for a DATA CHURNALIST. Like John Henry battling against the steam hammer, you will be responsible for tunneling through mountains of Excel spreadsheets and government FTP files to produce at least two dozen articles a day illustrated with pie charts. Also like John Henry you won’t be in a union. The ideal candidate has proven experience in correlating."


"All positions are unpaid."

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

The Nieman Journalism Lab

The scariest chart in Mary Meeker’s slide deck for newspapers has gotten a little scarier