My Word's

a weekly column by
Marylaine Block

vol. 2, #3, July, 1996


Newspapers in America are not doing well. Hardly any of our cities have more than one daily newspaper anymore, and some cities have lost all their newspapers.

The conventional wisdom is that this is not the fault of reporters or editors or owners. No, the usual suspects are:
  1. inner city offices and plants, but suburban advertisers and readers.
  2. competition with television, which gets there faster, with exciting action footage. Now, there's also competition with e-newspapers.
  3. rising costs--union labor and the rising cost of newsprint.
  4. newspaper chains buying everything in sight.
And these have undoubtedly contributed to the downward spiral of circulation and advertising revenues.

But my own feeling is that what has truly killed the newspapers is--the newspapers. They are deadly. Their prose is as heavy as the Sunday New York Times, and it is boring, boring, boring. It is gray prose, about gray subjects, with little or no connection to the lives of the readers. It may be fit to print, but it's sure not fit to be read--at least not by anyone who loves language.

What really brought this home to me was reading the wonderful science fiction writer, Bruce Sterling, writing about the Republican presidential primaries in Wired. His words sparkled and danced on the pages. This was vivid, image-filled language. The insights were sharp and compelling.

And after all, who better than a science fiction writer to recognize a dystopia in the making?

I contrasted this with the political writing I am used to seeing, and realized that what newspapers need is real writers. So my son and I played a little parlor game: what real writers would we have covering what beats?

For national politics, we thought Judith Viorst would be a natural. As you can tell from her children's books, like Alexander Who Used To Be Rich Last Sunday, this is a woman who has raised several squabbling little boys, with great understanding of their thought processes. So we'd assign her to cover Congress.

Bruce Sterling should by all means continue to cover elections, but we should also have Richard Mitchell and Bill James. Richard Mitchell (the "underground grammarian", author of Less Than Words Can Say) because he is a fine writer and the best analyst of rhetoric since George Orwell. Here is a man who can dissect political speech and find its core arguments. To be sure, he might find only a pompously disguised vacuum of thought, but this is valuable information for voters too. Similarly, Bill James (The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract), known as a baseball researcher, is one of the sharpest analysts of arguments around. After all, a man who can examine all the arguments why a given player should be in the Hall of Fame, analyze the statistics, compare the player with other players in that position who did and did not get into the Hall, is a man who should be analyzing the quality of political arguments, sorting out the valid from the meretricious.

Our newspapers have been a complete failure at telling citizens what the government does on a day-to-day basis. Outside of the Washington Monthly, we don't have routine coverage of the government agencies that are responsible for our basic safety and well-being. That's why we could use somebody like Studs Terkel, the oral historian, to report on the normal daily activities of government. He could interview the secretaries at the Department of Health and Human Services, the meteorologists at the National Severe Storms Laboratory, the statisticians at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and ask them what they do all day, and why it matters.

Economics reporting is easily the most boring part of newspapers in their present form. Why? Because if the numbers affect our lives--and they do--the reporters don't explain why or how. Oh, maybe they'll tell us how the numbers affect stockholders and bondholders. But they aren't explaining how rates on 30-year treasury bonds may cause us to get a pink slip along with our paycheck next Friday. What we need, clearly, is Paul Erdman doing our economic reporting. Here is a man who writes thrillers about international bankers and stock transactions. Thanks to him, I knew what derivatives were before Nicholas Leeson came along (and before Nicholas Leeson's employers at the bank did, apparently). Erdman is a fantastic explainer of complicated abstract economic concepts, and he is equally good at showing how those gray numbers change our lives.

But our present business writers also suffer from their belief that the marketplace is more efficient than government, and that we can therefore rely on it to solve our problems. That's why I would hire Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, to do routine coverage of corporations. Scott Adams knows how corporations really work.

For foreign affairs, we should have somebody who knows a fair amount about other cultures and their history, and what events need to be paid attention. Also, since Americans are easily bored with foreign affairs, we need somebody entertaining. I would try for John Cleese, from Monty Python, or Douglas Adams. (Next to life, the universe and everything, Europe should be a comparatively small area to cover.)

Science, of course, affects us all, in ways most of us don't begin to understand. So we should draft Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, The Terminal Man, etc.) to do our science coverage. He is good at making his readers understand that all life on our planet is inter-related, and that tinkering with one little thing can change everything else profoundly.

The American public is very much concerned about the environment, but newspapers much less so. We need routine, daily coverage, by someone who understands the delicate balance of ecological systems. Anne McCaffrey would be ideal. In her novels about the planet Petaybee (Powers That Be, etc.), she showed a planet reacting as a complete organism, resisting mindless exploitation, while embracing the settlers who worked in harmony with it, and used its bounty wisely. She can bring this understanding to our own planet.

Most Americans care deeply about children and education, and yet we learn next to nothing about the lives of children in our newspapers. So we'll create a new beat and assign it to Stephen King, a man who clearly has never forgotten the joys and terrors of childhood. As for schools, we need to know a lot more about them. Not just about the ones that fail--we have Jonathan Kozol for that already (Savage Inequality), but also about the ones that succeed. For that, we'll have to draft Ken Macrorie (Twenty Teachers), who studies and writes about great teachers, and how they work their magic.

We will need much better coverage of our state and local governments if more power is transferred from the federal government to their jurisdictions. Neil Peirce is already doing a wonderful job of writing about good local government and successful renewal projects, so we'll keep him on this beat. We'll add Joel Garreau (The Nine Nations of North America, Edge City), who is awfully good at analyzing, and writing well about, regional and suburban lifestyles. And who better to write about government than a man who created a magic kingdom, and had his hero govern it through several novels (Magic Kingdom for Sale)? So Terry Brooks will be hired for this beat too. We might just send him to Arkansas.

Religion is another one of those things that is important to the public but barely covered in the newspapers. We could use somebody who truly understands religious people, how religion governs their choices, what conflicts it raises and resolves. The brilliant science fiction writer Orson Scott Card, a devout Mormon with a profound moral vision, is the obvious candidate for religion reporter.

Popular culture reporting, of course, should be much more than movie reviews, celebrity interviews and soap opera digests. Our media affect us powerfully, how we dress, how we behave, how we think. So we need to hire Neil Postman (Technopoly, Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk, etc.) to write on a daily basis about how technology and media alter our minds.

We could also use a writer who has a sense of who Americans are as a people--not just a passel of competing, selfish interest groups, but ordinary, striving, caretaking members of a community. We don't much like the vision of Americans we see in our newspapers now, nor does it really match the people we see around us every day. So we'll hire CBS's wandering reporter Charles Kuralt and send him back out on the road again to talk to Americans, and report back to us on what kind of people we are.

Of course, there are some things we don't want to change. Some newspaper writers are already doing exactly what God intended them to do, and doing it brilliantly, so we'll keep them at it. We'll have Dave Barry explaining the mentality of guys, and covering the exploding-toilet beat. We'll keep Bob Greene on the ordinary-folks beat, Ellen Goodman on the women beat, (and bring back Anna Quindlen if we can), Molly Ivins on the politics beat, and Barbara Ehrenreich on the cultural commentary beat. What the heck, we can even use a curmudgeon to harrumph about the decline of society, so we'll keep John Leo--after all, he's right every now and again.

Now THERE's a newspaper that would be worth killing trees for.

But designing a newspaper is a parlor game anybody can play. I know I've left out a lot of great writers. Maybe there are also beats I haven't thought about covering. So, create your own. And let me know who's on your newspaper--it might be as good as mine. Or maybe even better.

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