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

By James Warren

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.

 

"The problem with the studies is that it is very hard to separate the benefits of the mother's milk from the benefits of the kind of mother who chooses to breastfeed. In the U K, for example, the highest class of women is 60 percent more likely to breastfeed than the lowest, so it is not surprising that research shows that breastfed infants display all the health and educational benefits they were born into.

 

"In other words, breastfeeding studies could simply be showing what it's like to grow up in a family that makes an effort to be healthy and responsible, as opposed to anything positive in breast milk."

 

There was far more in Rupert Murdoch's flagship yesterday and, despite my smarty-pants friends' condescension toward what "HE's done to The Times," I found it informative and fun.

 

And, as we've known forever, they do tab far better over here. "Kate, her drug-dealing millionaire uncle and a deeply embarrassing episode for the royals" was the hard-to-escape headline on Monday's tab Daily Mail, giving me some juicy tale about the family of Prince William's lady friend. And, inside, I also immediately confronted nearly a full-page image of the potbelly of rocker Bryan Ferry, 63, sunning on an Italian beach with his publicist squeeze, who's27. It was all big and bold and unabashed slumming.

 

And, in the end, also gave me slight pause about the American obsession with niches. I know few smart executives or media observers who will not wax funereal when it comes to the general interest publication. Indeed, Michael Wolff, sharp media writer for Vanity Fair, brings this all up in an August issue's profile of the Washington-based political site, Politico. He harkens to 1993 comments by author Michael Crichton to the effect that newspapers were imperiled since they were dumb and aimed at general, not specific, interests.

 

Politico is seen as a symbol of the turn to specific interests. But I couldn't help leaving with a slightly different impression after consuming five and six papers here each day; namely that perhaps there's still a way to pull off a product whose premise includes what tends to be the variety of our personal interests.

 

We've been addicted to segmentation, including the mandates of marketers who hawk the need to segment all of us as consumers. But there's an inherent fallacy in that worldview and forgets what can be our comically eclectic impulses. The guy who goes to church may like fancy clothes or cars, reality television shows, a drive-time shock radio host and both the Economist and People magazines. He may go for Beethoven, U-2 and Politico.com.

 

So perhaps the trick is not going niche for niche's sake. Perhaps one can be provocative, smart and general interest at the same time. Hey, I read every word Monday about Prince William's girlfriend's wayward family, Tom Watson's brush with immortality, the British army's distinct shortage of helicopters in Afghanistan, and, yes, the supposed myths of breastfeeding.  And I found it all rather fun, too. Thank you, Brits.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2009/07/a-british-lesson-for-american-media-just-say-no-to-boring/21713/