Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The easiest thing in the world for a reader to do is to stop reading

My newswriting class just wrote about a speech in which Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Gartner gave advice about writing -- and said the best advice he ever got on the subject was one sentence from his old Wall Street Journal boss, Barney Kilgore. It's this item's headline.

(In his speech, Gartner used the Kilgore quote in a plea for simpler, less murky writing -- good advice for any writing class. Coincidentally, the sentence might apply -- for other reasons -- to today's failing newspapers.)

Coincidence #1: I ran into the same quote yesterday in a Wall Street Journal article, "Making Old Media New Again," offering Kilgore's remodeling of the WSJ more than a half-century ago as a road map for 21st century newspapers. I decided to copy the column and pass it out to my classes... Then said to myself, "Why copy it and just give the class a link? I'll find it at wsj.com, assuming it's not behind a pay-per-view firewall."

Coincidence #2: Dave Winer's Facebook/Twitter/Blog/Feed sent me the link to the story before i had time to look it up... and just in time for class.

Coincidence #3: Kilgore is credited with leading the newsprint Journal to a circulation over one1 million readers -- in part by recognizing in the 1940s that "new media" (radio) would give people the breaking news, so newspapers should shift to explaining the news. Crovitz, meanwhile, is credited with "overseeing the growth of The Wall Street Journal Online to more than one million paying subscribers, making WSJ.com the largest paid news site on the Web." (See the "About L. Gordon Crovitz" box next to his online column.)

Along with "what makes readers keep reading?" and "what might make readers keep reading on paper?" we can use the story to start discussing the issues of "authority" and "transparency" (about connections and biases) in today's media.

Crovitz's article in praise of Kilgore is a review of a new Kilgore biography by yet another former Journal executive, Richard Tofel. The book is Restless Genius: Barney Kilgore, The Wall Street Journal and the Invention of Modern Journalism.

Not that those connections mean that Crovitz is wrong about Tofel, that Tofel is wrong about Kilgore, or that Kilgore was wrong about keeping readers reading.

Says Crovitz, "If readers would prefer more-compact city newspapers, a less-is-more approach could help cut newsprint, printing, distribution and other costs that don't add to the journalism. Newspaper editors could craft a new, forward-looking role for print, alongside the what's-happening-right-now focus of digital news."

Meanwhile, Crovitz (with Steve Brill) is one of the founders of journalismonline.com, an attempt to set up a payment system for online news publishers.

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