Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Hot Box

"The engine that drove [serialized TV] was you had to be in front of the TV [when it aired]. Now you can watch it when you want, where you want, how you want to watch it, and almost all of those ways are superior to watching it on air. So [watching it] on air is relegated to the saps and the dipshits who can't figure out how to watch it in a superior way." -- Tim Kring, creator of "Heroes"

Stop me if I've told this tale before, but I don't think I have. (Hey, it's the Web! You can't stop me!)

Years ago, in the early stages of newspapers' redesigning, I worked for a chain of eight midsize newspapers in the Midwest. Some of them looked as if it were still World War II, but in the early 1970s one of them had radically redesigned and managed to lose 10 percent of its subscribers in one week, or some figure like that. So they were going about it more cautiously.

So they had hired a designer to redo all the papers. (His name was Ralph "Chic" Bain. I have no idea what happened to him, although LinkedIn might place him in Austin.) We were Chic's third or fourth paper in a row and he had used all of his easy-to-gin-up ideas in other cities.

For our paper, he unveiled "the hot box." This was an attempt to get away from the tyranny of the three-across teaser box that then dominated newspaper design. Instead, we would have a line of type -- the equivalent of the Times Square zipper, but not moving -- at the top of the page, and then a box with a big image -- 2x2.5, about -- at the right margin, next to the flag. As with all designers, Chic selected a striking illustration for his prototype. He presented it to the top editors, and they approved it.

I was skeptical not of the artistic merits of the idea, but of our ability to come up with a striking illustration 365 days a year. I was scared that within a week this would end up being another grainy wirephoto of Jimmy Carter (we had old presses and almost no color). I had a conversation with Chic that brought that up, and it went sort of like this, in my memory:

Chic: Yeah, that'll be a problem.
Me: If you knew it was a problem, why did you include it? Now we have to do it.
He: It was a new idea. I didn't want to just do here what I did at X and Y.
Me: So you did it because you were bored?
He: No, I really wanted to see what it looked like and whether it could work. I wanted to try something new. But I figured someone here would say, we can't pull that off every day, and then I'd go back to something that looks more like the other papers. I didn't expect that they'd go along with it.

I later had a conversation with one of the editors who approved the "hot box." He said he had no idea what they were going to fill it with either. I asked why, then, they had not challenged Chic on the concept? His answer basically was, he's an artist and we're ink-stained wretches. He's got stylish clothes and we wear Farah slacks with magic waistbands. We didn't want to him to think we didn't get it. Even though we didn't get it.

In other words, we're not saps or dipshits.

Journalists, for all their skepticism and cynicism about the world known to them, can become totally credulous when confronted with news of a purported scientific, technological, artistic or educational advance. Partly, they want to report the news fairly and not kibosh something aborning. But they also fear that at heart they are simply ink-stained wretches and that this person is laughing in his heart at their stupidity. ("Before I ask you my next question, sir, I see you have the painting of a melting watch. I've always liked Miro, too.") Newspaper folk can fear not being cool enough.

Part of newspapers' incoherence in reacting to the post-Web world comes from this sense of "if everyone is telling us we're outmoded, we're stupid if we don't agree that we're outmoded." Of course, everyone is not everyone, but that makes the people who say "we like you" into simply more stupid people. And if you were to say, "Hey, we don't think print is completely outmoded?" You will be dismissed as "This backwards idiot just doesn't get it. He probably still uses rabbit ears!" Better to say, "Yes, this is the only future." (This is why people involved in placing mass-marketing advertising for firms like Best Buy and companies like Publishers Circulation Fulfillment can say, "We don't think print is completely outmoded." There is less pressure to be hip.)

This is a total conceit and impractical, but play along: If daily newspaper journalists were told that there was a way to financial success -- publishing, in print and online, a product that would have X penetration and X advertising and be able to pay X paychecks for the next 20 years, and would accurately report the news and offer community leadership -- but that this product would find success by being aimed at the generalist lay reader and would appear backward to trendy and sophisticated consumers of media and arts, would spur blog talk about how idiotic it was, how many journalists would want to join up?

In other words, were you proud that your kids watched "Sesame Street" and ashamed that they watched "Barney," even though you're the only one who got the inside jokes on "Sesame Street"? (Yeah, when I was a kid, my dad had to explain the Kirwood Derby to me.)

Of course, such a product is most of America's community daily and weekly newspapers, which may be in part why they are having fewer problems than the metros that everyone talks about.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

chic bain - chic@austin.rr.com

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