Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Dreams From My Mother

So my mother called yesterday to complain about her hometown newspaper.

My mother is a newspaper lover. Gets two delivered daily. When I was growing up, we had three dailies in town, and we got all three.

Sometimes she's been irritated at the Sole Suriving Paper, sometimes mildly amused. This was the first time she'd been really angry.

Why, what evil have they done?

Well, they shrunk the web width to 44 inches. That creates a newspaper that looks like a narrow storm door, but that was just an irritation.

But shrinking the web width meant that the comics were narrower and the TV book data was smaller, making it hard for older readers to read. (Not herself, my mother pointed out repeatedly. Other older readers. Not her.)

But these were mere provocations. What did they really do?

Apparently they ran a half-page of pet-related classifieds each week, and to fill the space above them with friendly copy, they had people send in their pet photos, which ran along with humorous captions -- pet thought balloons. This had been replaced by a boring feature from a syndicated veterinarian.

OK, everyone laugh together and say, "Core mission," "We have to make hard decisions" and "Cheapened the paper anyway." You can even laugh at my mother.

But the other thing was that the editor of the paper writes a column every week explaining why the paper makes the decisions it does, and what readers have to say about them, and, as she puts it, "he spends all his time apologizing." The week before he had heralded the changes with great positiveness. This week, no column and no explanation for its absence.

I tried to explain how it could be that he was coincidentally on vacation and that when they re-formatted the pages for a narrower web they forgot to format the sickbox, as we call it, onto the page and so the layout editor just forgot to note the column's absence without a visual cue. So she agreed to give it another week before she called and berated them.

So in addition to pets, what my mother was really angry about was that they appeared to take away a column about -- journalism. And also because: "He seems like such a nice man."
But, I said, all the other stuff is in the paper still, right? The news and the sports and stuff. Oh yeah, she said, and I look at it, I read it. But I don't care about it. This is stuff I care about.

Journalism is important, but journalism is abstract. The little things make the emotional connection that bonds a reader and a newspaper. Journalists have a couple of emotional connections anyway. It's our newspaper, and we love journalism, and we really, really care about issues like urban planning or politics. Blessedly some of our readers are like us. But not as many as we wish. Some are like a woman nearing 80 who takes two newspapers a day, has her TV turned to news channels much of the time, listens to Springsteen, goes to movies like "No Country for Old Men" because they're smart and not sappy, and yet gets really, really angry if the newspaper takes away her cute pet photos. Stop the description at "sappy" and she sounds like us. Throw in the pet column and she becomes one of those people who don't understand our holy mission.

I was going to move on to other topics for a while other than "the customer is not us," but you know, sometimes you have to do things for your mother.

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