The Common Good
June 2009

All the News That Sells

by Ed Spivey Jr. | June 2009

As I sit at my desk thinking up innovative ideas for the coming decade—MacArthur Mediocrity Grants, AIG offices relocating to Guan­tanamo, AIDS awareness seminars for the pope ...

As I sit at my desk thinking up innovative ideas for the coming decade—MacArthur Mediocrity Grants, AIG offices relocating to Guan­tanamo, AIDS awareness seminars for the pope (“I don’t use condoms, so why should Africa?”)—my mind wanders and I think back to the sound the newspaper didn’t make this morning as it was tossed into our yard. What used to wake us with the thud of a small futon falling off the back of a truck now whistles through the air like an empty Slurpee cup, landing noiselessly. The Washington Post, one of the most influential newspapers in the nation, barely makes an impression on our grass, lying there like a discarded half-smoke somebody backed over in a parking lot. The difference is that half-smokes haven’t cut their staff, trimmed their pages, or reduced their award-winning business and books sections to less space than the daily advice columns. (“My sister’s boyfriend wants to attend my upcoming wedding but, given that he’s also my first ex-husband, I don’t feel comfortable with that. Am I being selfish? And how do you feel about purple cummerbunds?”)

I understand that newspapers have to downsize these days, given that the only remaining advertisers are:

Cell phone companies promoting technology for families to stay connected, even though teenagers would gladly pay extra not to.

Banks touting their strong balance sheets and continued commitment to fiduciary responsibility, shortly before they are taken over by the federal government.

Oil companies promoting their decades-long commitment to the environment, and wondering why we haven’t noticed.

As a former staff member of the now-bankrupt Chicago Sun-Times (where I worked in the years before God, apparently on a whim, called me to leave that job and work for Sojourners), I have a keen interest in the survival of print journalism, if for no other reason than I can’t afford to spread out Kindles on the floor for the new puppy. But after considerable thought, I have devised a new business plan for newspapers, one that replaces the out-dated commitment to objectivity with the more lucrative innovation of product placement. Since most news events occur in the presence of consumer products, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch:

A three-alarm fire that gutted a warehouse in Midtown could have been avoided, according to city fire officials, if the owner had simply installed First Alert’s SA340 smoke detector, now with dual ionization. “There’s just no excuse,” admonished an official who requested not to be identified (a pleasant delusion, considering he was wearing a becoming Marc Jacobs twill trench coat from Nordstrom). “After all, these devices are on sale at area Home Depot stores for only $12.19.” An investigation by this newspaper confirmed the sale continues through the weekend.

Or:

An area man was slightly injured yesterday when he lost control of his 2009 Honda CR-V—now available with sunroof and heated outside mirrors—and careened into a telephone pole. Police at the scene reported that the driver had been distracted by text­ing on his new BlackBerry Storm 9530—the top of the line of the BlackBerry series, starting at $129.99—which he had just purchased at the downtown Verizon store, open from 10-8 Monday through Saturday. The driver’s minor facial lacerations were treated with Band-Aid bandages and his car was taken by Jack’s Stop ’n Tow to an unnamed local repair shop. (If the repair shop wishes to be named in subsequent news reports, please contact our advertising department.)

AND IT’S NOT JUST the economic downturn that is hurting newspapers. Electronic media have created a 24-hour news cycle such that newspapers might as well change their names to “Stuff You Already Heard on NPR.” Not to mention the growing generational divide; most young people get their important news—such as how the recession is affecting the Jonas Brothers—through their cell phones. These days, they only employ newspapers to roll up and swat their parents away from the land lines the older generation uses to “stay connected.”

I recently encountered this changing media environment when a young person asked me if I “twittered.” I thought about if for a minute, and then replied “No, but I dribble a little. Mainly at night.” This seemed to confuse her, but when I attempted to explain myself she threatened me with a rolled-up newspaper.

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners.

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