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Soupy Sales


The view from my hotel room in Savannah, Georgia, where I'm attending the conference of daily newspaper features editors from across America to promote my column.

The problem with dailies? Just as they're all mewling that their readership is dwindling, they live in terror that they might get an angry letter or two from a reader, and are in a panic to see to it that they read like the church gazette. Here's a quote from a piece by Chicago Tribune public editor Timothy McNulty explaining why they censored a comic:

I asked Geoff Brown, associate managing editor for features, when and how often he decides to pull a comic strip.

Brown said he might determine that a particular comic's content is offensive once or twice a year. "Some people claim it's censorship, but I call it editing," he said. "We don't allow our own reporters to write vulgarities, double-entendres or untruths, even in jest." He thought the "nut-crunch" joke was just vulgar.

In a letter on Jim Romenesko's media news site, Gary Dretzka put this silly thinking in its place:

I applaud those family-conscious editors who re-direct family-unfriendly comic strips, political cartoons, photos and columns to their paper's family-neutral websites or sites belonging to anti-family artists, photographers and writers. I know that my kids, now grown, would never of thought of looking for offensive material on the Internet. That would mean they had learned how to type, read, spell and think for themselves, and that doesn't happen until one is old enough to vote. Or, does it?

A possible solution: Newspapers should consider making their websites family friendly, and reserve the marginally questionable material for print editions, which would become family-neutral. Theoretically, then, print demographics would begin to trend younger, while traffic on Internet sites skewed older. Or ... no one will be satisfied, and the newspapers (along with their websites) would simply dry up and blow away. Unlikely, but possible.

And, memo to ombudspeople, on comics and most other issues: your paper's editors aren't intimidated by toothless opinions, and readers aren't buying such imprecise copouts as, "(The Chronicle) offer(s) several Spanish-language publications, and we have not cowered away from reporting on immigration rights and other issues important to the Latino community" or, on the perceived censoring of "Get Fuzzy," "Newspaper articles are not written in stone and neither are comic strips." No kidding.

Such inarguably classic comic strips as "Pogo" and "Li'l Abner" were far more topical and controversial in their day than anything the authors of "La Cucaracha" and "Get Fuzzy" will ever do. In the '50s and '60s, more family members read newspapers cover-to-cover than is the case today. Somehow both the republic and newspaper industry managed to survive and prosper. Amazing.

Just wondering, too: Now that we know the "open" rate for a full-page ad in the New York Times normally (operative word, normally) is $181,000, is it worth asking what the going rate for a comparable ad on the NYT website might be? And, by "comparable," are we talking about an easily ignored 2-inch banner ad across the virtual masthead or an instantly disposable and highly irritating pop-up ad that can be closed in a single keystroke? After more than a decade of on-line success, porn sites seem to have learned that pop-up clutter doesn't automatically translate into additional subscribers, and banner ads that distract from free T&A may be just as effective when placed on the scroll-down (under the fold, if you will) than above the teaser content. As has become clear, the production of teaser content is all advertisers, stockholders and publishers desire of journalists.

Will media interests accustomed to 20-percent-plus growth, year after year, be able to maintain the same ad rates in the Internet age ... when print circulation declines and Internet traffic expands? Or, will advertisers prefer to spend far less money on pop-ups and banners on niche sites, where they already know whose and how many eyes are watching what, and when they're doing it? (The precipitous decline of book-review sections has, in part, been blamed on inflexible ad rates, which don't reflect actual readership.)

Holy conundrum, Batman!

Someone once compared the Internet to a lake that's 100 miles long, 10 miles wide, but only a foot deep. For a media conglomerate to navigate such a body of water on daily basis, shore to shore, would require a craft that more resembles an airboat or motorized kayak, than a battleship. Unfortunately, such compact vehicles wouldn't have much room for passengers, crew or equipment. To compensate, publishers have already begun selling their docks, launching smaller boats and throwing crew members overboard, including those seasoned pros who know where the big fish can be found.

If the trend continues apace, someday there won't be any room for passengers, either. The trophy fish will still be lurking in the weeds, but there will be many fewer guides available to help customers find them.

Or, maybe the media conglomerates will simply dredge the lake or siphon the water into a hole in the ground with broader shores. The bass will disappear, but the battleships will have a place to drop anchor. On Wall Street, apparently, that's a fair trade.

Posted by aalkon at September 27, 2007 1:23 PM


Amy! Almost this time last year I was in Savannah for our minimoon. (I keep saying that in hopes that we'll have a "real honeymoon" -- i.e. a trip of more than three days -- someday.) Now I'm all nostalgic.

I'm trying to find you the name of the Italian restaurant where we ate our first night -- it was fantastic. Cha Bella, I think. It was on the west side of town, not on River Street. Also, if you get some time, just people-watching on Bull Street, near the Gryphon Tea Room and the old department store that has been turned into SCAD's library, is great fun.

Finally: this may not be your thing, but the local civil rights museum is actually quite good because its focus is on what was going on in Savannah, and it's not just a recap of the civil-rights struggle at large.

Posted by: Jessica at September 27, 2007 6:10 AM

Savannah is a great city to visit even in bad weather.

Hate this-

> He thought the "nut-crunch"
> joke was just vulgar.

First of all, it's just priggish.

Secondly, Paglia once ran it down like this: The word "vulgar" translates as "tongues", so it really gets down to being about what people would talk about. And people hate to think that they're part of the unwashed masses.

Except that, y'know, humanity is where the action is.

You'd think altweeklies would be a little more sophisticated about this. They sit in pulpy stacks, just waiting for you to pick them up (at no charge) so they can stain your fingers with weakly-printed ink. And here in the big city, the ads are all about laser vaginal rejuvenation and outcall prostitution. No sane person is turning to them for an elevating sense of isolation, but rather a cheap and fast expression of how we're all in this together, politically and otherwise. These are our sluttiest textual media.

Quotes like that are how old media die.

Posted by: Crid at September 27, 2007 7:08 AM

IJS, they should be so lucky as to publish something that would be on people's tongues.

Posted by: Crid at September 27, 2007 7:22 AM

Absolutely right, Crid. What's amazing to me is all the dollars spent on "consultants," when the answer is stuff people find exciting, compelling, and even upsetting to read.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at September 27, 2007 8:03 AM

You know, Amy, sometimes I really agree with you and sometimes I really disagree with you...but boredom never enters the equation. Same with the WSJ editorial page. Newspapers seem to spend all of their time trying to avoid offending anyone and attempting to cover Important Topics...while never once thinking, "hey, maybe we should produce something interesting!" Which is fatal. People will force themselves to read great works of literature or politics that are somewhat dry and boring. Newspapers? No. And once you get out of the habit, I'm not sure you ever get back.

Great photo, though.

Posted by: marion at September 27, 2007 10:28 AM

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