All the news that’s fit to print
“Why start my day drab when I can start it with the Sun-Times? The Bright One.”
So goes a pseudo-testimonial ad for the Chicago Sun-Times, whose new tagline is “The Bright One.” I have not yet determined what is supposed to be “bright” about the Sun-Times compared to its rival across Michigan Avenue, the Chicago Tribune. The sparkling wit of its columnists? The intelligence of its reporting? The snap of its photography? The color of its graphics?
Undoubtedly, the advertising agency’s gurus were thinking of all of the above when trying to devise a tagline that would set the Sun-Times apart while subtly denigrating its competitor. The testimonial approach is meant to appeal to the conformist in all of us; after all, who would admit to preferring The Drab One to The Bright One?
I’ve never been able to take the Sun-Times seriously as a journalistic effort. Certainly, there have been bright spots in the newspaper over the years; the late Irv Kupcinet imbued gossip with class, while Roger Ebert’s head understood a good film better than the late Gene Siskel’s heart.
On the other hand, the Sun-Times replaced Ann Landers with two forgettable advice columnists chosen through a competition designed to generate publicity for the Second City’s second newspaper. Their flip, hip, and quick advice often seemed more focused on showing off their wit than on addressing the question. “All That Zazz,” named for the column’s author, indicated the shift from old-fashioned, maternal advice to modern entertainment.
A few years ago, in an effort to reach younger people who prefer to spend their intellectual time online and who can’t be bothered reading print, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune launched their respective Red Streak and Red Eye editions nearly simultaneously. Both are tabloids that generally feature a single, large colour photo and a large, bold headline on the front. On rare occasions, it’s about a current world or local event, for example, Iraq/Afghanistan or the latest Chicago porch party disaster. They are newspapers seemingly filled with non-news; one striking cover was about the 10th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Inside, there seem to be pages and pages of photos with short captions — photos of celebrities and captions describing the event where they were photographed and the designer of their apparel. Both Red Streak and Red Eye are laid out with the same attention to aesthetics and content as the National Enquirer.
Although I’m not part of either publication’s target market, I did receive an advertising letter from one of them that informed me that I’m young, I’m bright, I’m up-and-coming, and I’m far too busy and important to get bogged down with conventional newspapers that drone on and on. I need my important information at a glance. The writer devoted a full page to such flattery, more than these publications devote to a story. As I was glancing through it, I was reminded of the indignant line uttered by an attractive young woman in a television commercial for Valtrex®, the genital herpes medication that needs to be taken only once a day: “I have a life!” (apparently devoted to spreading the joy, judging by the commercial’s visuals).
Pandering to youth has become a phenomenon in advertising that no one has explained satisfactorily. Vast amounts of advertising are tailored to the under-30 market, with much of that specifically targeted to the 18-25 market. Meanwhile, research shows a widening gap between the vast disposable income of older people (Boomers and above) and the declining income of those same 18- to 25-year-olds, a growing number of whom are living longer and longer at home primarily because they can’t afford to move out.
The prevailing theory seems to be that it’s harder to capture the youth market. Judging by magazine ads and television commercials, people my age don’t buy cars, electronics, appliances, online services, CDs, furniture, or even cosmetics. What we do buy is [insert your favourite male enhancement product name here], Ensure, vitamins and supplements, and life insurance. Apparently, we don’t even buy household cleaning products (primarily, we leave that to young, frazzled mothers) or hair coloring and anti-wrinkle creams, which we leave to aging models in the 28-33 range.
So now there are two Chicago newspapers for advertising’s much-coveted youth market. That they are generally devoid of news or in-depth reporting could be a function of the times. At the Printer’s Row book fair one year, I found a booth full of newspapers from the mid to late 1800s. They were a graphic designer’s worst nightmare — blocks and blocks of tiny copy with only a few vertical and horizontal lines and an occasional line drawing to break up the ocean of words.
One long feature detailed George Armstrong Custer’s return trip from a western adventure (clearly, he would go west one too many times). As I read about his journey, I slowly found myself immersed in it, just like a nineteenth-century reader. The reporter knew that his reader would never see Custer or anything Custer had experienced except in photos or drawings. His reader would never see the Plains or the Indians himself. It was likely the average reader would never travel more than a few dozen miles from home. For such a reader to understand Custer’s world, the reporter needed to bring it to life in relentless printed detail, in hundreds, even thousands of words.
And he did, because the reader wanted to understand. The reader wanted to live vicariously through Custer and through the reporter. Any major event merited such in-depth reporting; otherwise, it would be too remote from the reader’s day-to-day life and experience for him to comprehend. It also gave him something to talk about with his family and friends, as they imagined Custer’s adventures and journeys.
Today, Custer would take a three- or four-hour flight, and his superiors would call a press conference to report on the Indian situation. The viewer or reader would want to know the answer to one primary question: Is it resolved or not? If not, how much longer is it going to take (and, perhaps, how much is it going to cost?). A talking head anchor can fill the viewer in on the roadblocks and other issues in fewer than 60 seconds. Any other detail is extraneous.
The viewer or reader also wouldn’t need an elaborate description of Custer’s dress, hairstyle, or accoutrements; he’d appear on the news every day, and his photo would be on hundreds of news, military, and fan Web sites. Nothing about his physical journey would interest the average person; how many times have most of us flown for work or pleasure? If Custer’s politics were to differ from ours, reading about him would serve mainly to irritate us and to prove us right, as we knew we were all along.
When I was a child in western New York, there were still two rival newspapers: the Buffalo Evening News and the Courier-Express (my parents, both morning people, opted for the latter). In the 1960, there were more photos and less copy than in Custer’s day; photography and news footage would bring home the horrors of the Vietnam War and other realities in a way that words never could.
I remember best, however, an investigative series about New York’s migrant workers. I was naive enough not to have any real concept of what my father did at work or even what work meant to him. Work was just something grownups disappeared for several hours a day to do.
Through this series, I was horrified to learn that migrant workers, people like me, human beings, lived in shacks without running water or the luxury of toilets. They worked from sunrise to sundown, nearly nonstop, for pennies. While picking strawberries with my dad and aunts for couple of hours on a sunny June Saturday was exciting and fun and out of the ordinary for me, I could not imagine doing it every day for hours — and for so little reward. It was my first lesson in how one person’s summer’s day pleasure could be another’s endless toil.
Investigative print reporting still exists, beyond Woodward and Bernstein. The free weekly, the Chicago Reader, usually features a lengthy cover story about a single topic, ranging from high-profile crimes and examples of corruption to profiles of social activists. With its enormous collection of singles ads, its focus on avant-garde entertainment and art, and nontraditional cartoons like “Life in Hell,” the Reader also has its appeal to a young, club-hopping audience. Do they read that lengthy, detailed, painstakingly researched cover story or skip straight to the personals, erotic ads, and club entertainment listings? I wonder.
7 January 2019 update: The Chicago Sun-Times is now “The Hardest-Working Paper in America.” The paper works hardest, but do the journalists, press operators, and others who put it out every day?
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