Friday, February 12, 2010

Newspapers: if you're going to die the least you can do is tell a joke; have we forgetten how to entertain?

I used to drive my B2B magazines crazy by telling them I wanted our magazine to be entertaining. It may have been something they agreed with in theory -- but in practice it seemed to them an impossible task. How do you make road construction entertaining? How is landscaping hilarious?

Ambrose Bierce, who defined "Representative" as "a member of the Lower House in this world, and without discernible hope of promotion in the next."

The answer, of course, wasn't in writing funny asphalt paving stories, but in finding people who had a sense of humor and letting them have at it.  I always told my editors that I wanted, as a goal, for our magazine to be something someone in our industry took on the plane with them. I had noticed that business people generally took magazines from outside their field: general business magazines, or magazines that they found entertaining. Rarely did I ever find someone sitting next to me heading to the same convention as I reading Roads & Bridges -- and when I did I always shook their hands and told them I was the publisher -- then drilled them for the rest of the flight with questions about how they felt about the book, and their industry. Poor chaps.

I bring this up because newspapers seem to have lost their sense of humor. It is even worse online. Remember the attempts of the Washington Post with Mouthpiece Theater?

Humorists have a long history in the newspaper business.  Mark Twain had it right when he said “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.”  Ambrose Bierce defined a reporter as "A writer who guesses his way to the truth and dispels it with a tempest of words."

In my lifetime we've had Art Buchward (“If you attack the establishment long enough and hard enough, they will make you a member of it.”), and Herb Caen (“One day if I do go to heaven...
I'll look around and say, 'It ain't bad, but it ain't San Francisco!”)

So, here is my suggestion: don't force your reporters to make funny videos. Find someone who is already humorous and let then have at it. Another suggestion: buy out or hire these guys in a hurry.