southtownstar
SIMMERING 
Weather Updates

McGrath: Newspapers’ resolution: Shake up op-ed columnists

Updated: February 28, 2013 6:46AM



It’s no secret that newspapers from coast to coast have been struggling, but all the blame cannot be pinned on the Internet and the digital age.

Publishers need to look in the mirror, for there are many non-Web problems contributing to their demise that need to be resolved in the New Year.

I don’t fault local papers, which generally do yeoman’s work on skinny budgets, but rather the big-city dailies that pledge to cover the nation and the world.

For example, I recently read a Los Angeles Times story entitled, “Israeli army fires warning shots into Syria,” which concerned Israel’s angry reaction to artillery shells from Syria’s civil war inadvertently landing in the Golan Heights.

Besides thinking again how exacerbated a mess it has been recently in the Middle East, I wondered how and where Syria intersects with Israel. And exactly how close is the Golan Heights to the Gaza Strip, where Hamas also has been shelling Israel but on purpose?

Also, who else shares a border with Israel? And do these countries have a common seacoast? I needed a picture. A map.

But the Times did not supply a map. A color or black-and-white map with the Golan Heights in the center would have greatly enhanced my understanding and appreciation of the article.

Newspapers used to provide maps all the time. Everybody loves maps! It’s how I became interested in and learned geography.

Whose bright idea was it to do away with maps? I can no longer get the complete political or international story without grabbing my atlas or globe off the shelf.

More often than not, I must enter the name of the country, city or place into Google Maps on my computer. Which then begs the question: Why should a reader bother with the print edition when he must access certain information online anyway?

Maps are cheap to print, cheaper than photographs. What the heck happened?

Besides eliminating maps and other graphics, some news editors have apparently decided to dispense with a few of the principles of journalism.

Consider the first paragraph of a recent piece in the San Francisco Chronicle: “Her brown bangs hanging to her eyes and her front tooth noticeably wiggly, 6-year-old Kathleen Gangale proudly listed the best parts of her family’s new house: her own bedroom decorated in pink and purple, her own bed and a playhouse in the backyard.”

While it’s possible that some high-functioning readers could infer the point of this news story from that paragraph, I surely could not.

And I did not have the time or the desire to wade further to find out because I assumed from the lackadaisical beginning that it was not very important, its position on Page 1 notwithstanding.

Apparently, newspapers from the Boston Globe to the Arizona Republic have decided to “grab” readers — not with a clear lead that tells the who, what, when, where and why of the story in one sentence but with a visual or some other kind of colorful or anecdotal lead, presumably to evoke interest.

But here’s a news flash, editors — if a reader purchased the paper, you already have his interest. All you have to do is practice good journalism so he can quickly browse the stories’ leads to determine which ones are worth his time.

By the way, the Chronicle article was supposed to be a story on a new program that is helping to alleviate the problem of homelessness in the city. Too bad it didn’t say so from the get-go.

Finally, among the most egregious practices of big-city papers is what I’ll call editorial gridlock. They employ many of the same pundits to weigh in on the news and politics of the day.

The problem, which was so manifestly painful in the presidential election coverage, is that their stories and columns are insipidly predictable.

No matter if you’re reading a paper in Chicago or Orlando, you are stuck with much the same lineup of conservative and liberal commentators. It’s red against blue, regardless of the column’s angle or word count.

The thinking of too much of newspaper management these days is that they should indulge the audience’s need for reinforcement of its preconceived opinions — essentially trying to give them what they already derive from their favorite blogs, websites and chat rooms.

But that’s cheerleading, not news. That’s why the print media need to shake up their opinion teams and feature more varied and independent voices.

After all, it’s supposed to be news, not olds.

David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage.



© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit www.suntimesreprints.com. To order a reprint of this article, click here.