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Wrighting Newspapers' and CJR's Wrongs

One of my favorite comedians of all time is Steven Wright.

With his slow, deadpan delivery, Wright provides a unique view of our world that is idiotically brilliant.

Wright: "If you can't hear me, it's because I am in parentheses."

More Wright: "It's a small world, but I wouldn't want to have to paint it."

I'll give you this link to some of Wright's stuff knowing full well, that you won't be back afterward. If nothing else, you can't say I don't give you credit for good taste. Enjoy.

For those of you who have returned, thanks, and I had a great time spending Christmas with you. Give my best to Uncle Bob, please.

And since you are in the spirit, family, let me try out my own Wright-ism where it might be applied to the troubled state of journalism, and newspapers in particular. I know, I know, there goes the party, but bear with me. You didn't have to come back here you know.

Here goes:

"I love reading about the newspaper"

As I pour through at least 15 percent of the stuff out there each day about the demise of newspapers, so you don't have to, I am generally struck by one common denominator of so many of these stories: How often these things are written by people who made their living in the newspaper business, and were at the helm of these newspapers as their circulation went in the toilet.

Now these folks are explaining all this to an online audience they ignored.

Hey, I admit it, I was one of these folks, so I certainly know ignorance when I see it.

I do think newspapers can mostly be salvaged, but will have to start drastically altering what they are doing. One easy fix: Stop putting old national and world news on your front pages, like it is some big, breaking story. It's not. It's dreadfully old by the time your readers have been forced to see it for the 15th time.

But more revolutionary ideas like that one some other time.

Again, a note: Old news doesn't sell

What got my attention today was something I came across on the Columbia Journalism Review's web site. There, on the home page, in fairly small, innocent type is the headline, "A report on the reconstruction of American journalism."

My curiosity properly piqued, I clicked on the link.

That's when all the trouble started ...

First, I noticed that this behemoth of a report was 17 pages long. That would make it at least 14 pages too long for the average media 'expert' and newspaper reader, and at least 15 pages too long for the average Internet surfer bored enough to be interested in this mundane stuff.

I noted that as I read into the third page, and made a note to respectfully note to the CJR that when it put this stuff up, to make a note of making this kind of thing more reader-friendly by chopping it into pieces, and highlighting key clauses for its readers with bullets or something.

The CJR could also make a note of prominently teasing to the full report off its home page to anybody who might have a day or so to read the whole thing.

OK, duly noted ...

By the time I got to the fourth page, something struck me as odd -- as if I'd seen some of this before...
But, never mind, I kept reading. Some time later, I was sure I'd seen some of this before, because I had laughed cynically at some of its findings at one point in my life.

So I went back to the first page of the report and noticed this little one-liner atop the story: For reactions to this report, click here.

So I did. And there at the top of that page were reactions from Nov. 16, 2009.

What the ...?!

So I clicked back to the report, and higher up on the page, in three-point type was this: Reconstruction: Oct. 19, 2009, 01:00 p.m.

So a geeky, veteran newspaper guy like myself had been hoodwinked into reading some exhaustive report I had already read. Well, OK, I never read the thing in its entirety the first time around, either. It was too damn long.

If a tree falls in the forest ...

Anyway, I had spent some of my valuable time this morning reading a reconstruction of an article titled reconstruction ...

Perfect. Lucky, I really don't have anything else to do ...

I'll certainly own some of my wasted time, though.

I should have paid more attention to the date, but made the mistake of figuring that if the CJR was going to be putting archival stuff on the home page of its web site, it would make good and sure to clearly alert readers that it was old news.

Maybe it didn't, because it knows old news doesn't sell -- even if its free?

Now I'm not sure what to say. I've had my time wasted by a respectable site mostly aimed at bettering print journalism ...

Maybe now you can see why Steven Wright popped into my head as this whole sorry episode went down today.

So I'll say this: Newspaper executives would do well to stop lamenting what happened, and get hot figuring out how to get this generation-plus of people to start reading their printed product. If they don't, all this head-scratching and rehashing of meandering 17-page reports just looks like a lot of wasted motion and no action to me.

Here's one more favorite from Wright that I think applies here:

"I was once walking in the forest alone. A tree fell right in front of me -- and I didn't hear it."

(Got a tip, a gripe, or some kudos? Send 'em along.)