A British Lesson for American Media: Just Say No to Boring

LONDON -- The American print industry, both newspapers and magazines, is convulsed by an eroding business model, notably with advertising in free fall, and with executives scrambling to belatedly mull alternatives. Most notably, there's the inspection of different models of charging for online content. 

 

At the end of a quickie trek to a nephew's wedding in Cambridge, and with unceasing rain allowing too many hours of newspaper consumption, I'm also reminded about a frequent self-inflicted wound back home: Too many of our papers tend to be a snooze.

Not all, but many, and surely a higher percentage than one finds over here, regardless of whether one's scanning aggressively low-brow tabloids or higher-end broadsheets.

 

The Sunday Independent, which is the slightly-larger-than-tab size known as a Berliner, was a very rich potpourri on the state of manned space exploration tied to the Apollo 11 anniversary; lots of good analysis of the political travails of stumbling Prime Minister Gordon Brown; a tough assessment of the state of progress on London's preparations for the 2012 Summer Olympics, with evidence that much ballyhooed projects for London's poor aren't panning out; an investigation on asbestos in school buildings; a very harsh account of how defense spending cuts are really hurting Britain's efforts in Afghanistan; and lots of lighter but not silly fare on why Britain has so few successful female comedians. And, yes, there was lot of utilitarian fare on bargains and movies and TV shows.

 

Along the way, it covered all the previous day's news, mostly vividly underscored by the baffling (to me) obsession with cricket and, no surprise, the weekend fascination with American golfer Tom Watson's quest to turn back the clock and win the British Open (one tab's Monday morning edition included a rollicking column by a curmudgeon, declaring that the mere fact Watson, 59, almost won was the ultimate proof that golf isn't a real sport).

 

All in all, the Independent was a fun read, with much that was responsibly provocative, and I exited after a nearly 90-minute dissection without a sense I'd just engaged dutifully in some homework assignment. It was just informing and entertaining. Back home, we newspaper guys tend to get nervous with the entertainment quest, seeing that as potentially minimizing an air of authority, and have a devil of a time having fun in a smart, sophisticated way. When it comes to being truly fun, we're a bit repressed, consumed by honorable notions of balance and don't have the courage of our darker impulses. We tend to leave the really lighter or odder explorations of topics to our online versions (which, in the case of the New York Times, is now a richly more robust source than the print edition I reflexively devour each morning in Chicago).

 

Even Monday, a thin gruel of mostly weekend leftovers for most American papers, provided ample engaging material. Indeed, yesterday's Times of London free-standing features section (Times2) grabbed me by the nipples with a full-page close-up shot of a baby breastfeeding (one can envision dyspeptic U.S. editors holding multiple meetings just on the image), then made a strong case (not entirely new) that women worldwide are conned by the purported benefits of breastfeeding. The supposed ills of formula-feeding (fatter, dumber, more diabetic kids, etc.) is folderol, this argued, with some very solid questions raised about the premises of many breastfeeding studies.

Presented by

James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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