Must the news be boring? I don’t mean to be tendentious. Asking whether news should or should not be interesting would have been seen as preposterous just a few years ago, before the extent of the newspaper crisis became fully evident. Newspaper front pages—in their modern configuration, anyway, which dates back to Joseph Pulitzer’s innovations of the 1880s—had long determined how we understood what news meant.
Headlines were carefully calculated graphic representations of import. The lead story could get a one-, two-, or three-column headline—which could be a single- or double-decker with a subhead—a weighting mechanism meant to allow the public to shape, order, and compartmentalize its understanding of world events. More recently, the obligatory “weather photo”—a reassuring image of sunbathers, cross-country skiers in unlikely settings, uplifting ethnic or sports celebrations, or kids with cute animals—signaled that the editors were empathetic toward their readers even as they did their editorial duties, like doctors who gave lollipops to children.
News, at least as practiced by the major broadsheets for decades, was a sacred trust. Readers needed news and had limited ways to learn about current events. Editors would tell us what to read, and we would read it. News didn’t have to be interesting, because it was important, and any self-styled citizen of the world needed to know what was important. Of course, print-newspaper readership is now in what may or may not be terminal decline, and news is available instantaneously on the Web, where the hallowed, exquisitely calibrated arts of the front page have been washed away like sand castles at high tide.