Chat With God

I dig this, but I don’t get it.

“GOD couldn’t decide where to meet for a cup of coffee.

Dunkin’ Donuts? “No place to sit.” Howard Johnson’s? “Gone, my child, gone.” Starbucks? “Too pretentious.”

Here’s Dan Barry.

The Death Spiral

A few nuggets from Newspapers In Turmoil in The Rake: ( Thanks, Zack. )

…But almost everywhere else, newsrooms have been stripped of adequate resources, imagination, and editorial courage. Too much of the regular, daily content of too many news organizations is filled with predictable, redundant stories produced in the same bland newspeak, the same inevitable tone and perspective…

…The bard of Anoka, Garrison Keillor, a lover of good writing and journalism, gave an interview to the Hartford Courant last April. He was about to speak to the 2005 National Writers Workshop and he wanted say something in defense of newspapers. It wasn’t easy. “I think that American newspapers have taken a very serious wrong turn,” said Keillor, “and that aside from a few newspapers, the quality of the product is in decline, especially for the reader, and I think that newspapers have forgotten that their readers are readers and love writing. Writing is what people want. They don’t want a sort of concept of journalism; they want writers. And writers are always individuals. This is what people turn to newspapers for. They don’t turn to newspapers for advice and for personal service and for sort of glossy pieces about lifestyle and home décor and cooking and how to bring up your children.”

Talking to the journalism trade magazine Editor & Publisher a while later, Keillor added that today’s newspapers “are too positive and upbeat, on the mistaken assumption that that’s what readers are looking for.” Sadly, what Keillor is looking for is precisely the sort of stuff many newspapers are combing out of what remains of their pages. I can tell you from long, personal experience the sour reactions and looks I got from any TV review or trend piece that wasn’t a giddy celebration of the sheer, bouncy fun of The Bachelor, Joe Millionaire, or The Apprentice. “It’s what our readers want to read,” I was constantly told, by editors fresh back from another mandatory meeting with the research department…

…Newspapers are still the anchor of the mainstream media, despite the public’s overwhelming reliance on TV for breaking news. (Local TV news would implode if it didn’t have the morning paper to work from.) Papers still have the wherewithal to fight back against the appeal of the best bloggers. But in order to compete, they’re going to have to let at least some of their writers be actual writers, loosen their foundation garments, assert their opinions, employ more literary devices, and in general have some fun with the topics and people they cover….

…The appeal of good, sometimes irreverent writing, beyond what traditional mainstream newspapering currently allows, is borne out in a study by Northwestern University’s Readership Institute. Lately the Institute has partnered with the Star Tribune, testing models for the newspaper’s long-awaited redesign.

The makeover is supposed to incorporate significant advances in online service, among other things. Many Star Tribune employees will be curious to see if it addresses anything mentioned here. Northwestern spent a lot of time assessing the tastes of those elusive “younger readers,” the ones who don’t read newspapers much, don’t watch traditional network news programs, and only leaf through Time and Newsweek at the dentist’s office.

What they found was interesting: A remix of news choices with hipper, more irreverent headlines and stories written with blog-like attitude—not Jen-Brad-Angelina-style celebrity junk, but actual news—was in fact more appealing to young readers than the stuff the Star Tribune actually published (they focused the study on the Star Tribune’s Valentine’s Day 2005 edition). The Star Tribune test material was very similar to Chicago’s competing Red Eye and Red Streak free tabloids. (The “Reds” are two free weeklies published the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune since 2002. They are aggressive efforts to lure young readers.)

“What is interesting and revealing,” says Mike Smith, managing director of Northwestern’s Media Management Center, “is that the Sun-Times and Tribune have found that adults, loyal newspaper readers, are picking up the free weeklies in far greater numbers than first imagined.” In other words, a general loosening of the more staid conventions of professional journalism may very well offer more upside than risk to mainstream media.

The Goods

Please check out the Times Herald-Record’s Tuesday coverage of a triple homicide Monday.
Comprehensive, readable, good stuff.
The main bar: Fired sex offender shoots 3, kills self.
From the scene: ‘I want to go home and hug my kids.
On the workplace: Low-profile plant a big player.
The gunman’s secrets: Gunman had dark side few knew about.
On the victims: Shooting victim profiles.
And: Photo gallery.

Getting Better

Following a few backchannel discussions, I’d like to extend an open invite for all of you to let me post your stuff here on for feedback from other pros. If we can’t get honest feedback, we’ll all have a tough time getting better. Shoot me an email and I’ll put it on, and hopefully we’ll stir some thoughtful critiques.

Garrison Keillor on Hank Williams

“The good years were sweet – he sang on big radio shows in New York, was offered a movie contract by MGM, got to hear his songs covered by pop stars – and then he fell and fell hard. The end was brutal. He was in and out of sanitariums and got hooked on a sedative, chloral hydrate, and became pitiful in a public way: he got booed off a number of stages by his own fans. He was, Hemphill writes, “skinny as a spider, suffering from chest pains, nearing impotence, incontinent to the point he was wetting his bed every night.” In the midst of his miseries, he had a last grand hurrah at the Skyline Club in Austin, Tex., and sang every song he knew, some of them more than once, for three hours, no intermission. He stood on stage and wailed. People said it was the greatest thing they’d ever seen.

Charlie’s Adventures

So I got Direct TV a few weeks ago and I finally got a chance to flip channels this morning. Somewhere in the 300s, I stumbled across Charlie LeDuff getting his ass kicked by a biker in a fight club-style boxing match. Turns out, I’m watching the Discovery/Times channel, and LeDuff has his own show called Only In America. Have you seen this?

The Nuns And The Wind

Taped under receptionist Gloria Williams’s desk were “urgent” instructions to recite in case of a hurricane: “Our Father who art in heaven, through the powerful intercession of Lady of Prompt Succor spare us from the harm during the hurricane season.”

No prayer could stop Katrina’s rushing waters or ease the fatal heat that followed. When rescue workers finally arrived five days later, bodies were found wrapped in bedsheets in the chapel. Originally told 14 had died, officials eventually recovered 22 corpses.

Anne Hull and Doug Struck with At Nursing Home, Katrina Dealt Only The First Blow.

Another one fades

Early on, after I had written my fifth robbery roundup in five days, the metro editor at that time, a great guy named Bill Gerdes, came to me and said, “Stop! No more robbery roundups.”

Then he explained the Post-Herald mission to me.

“Look,” he said, “you don’t have to write about every crime committed in the city. This is not the paper of record; those guys are,” and he jerked his head toward the other side of the building where the reporters and editors of the Birmingham News worked.

“What we do,” he said, “is pick the best stories and do them better.” (More)

Times Select

If you haven’t done it already, sign up for a free 14 days of Times Select at, and check out the multimedia video feature with Dan Barry. Classic stuff. He reads the papers, he reads Joseph Mitchell, he reads E.B. White, and he walks around New York being curious.
There are lessons throughout.