Earl Maucker: "Readership Trend" Tracker | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

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Earl Maucker: "Readership Trend" Tracker

I was a little late coming to the party on the Sun-Sentinel re-design. I didn't realize when it was done last year that it would relegate reporters and their stories to third-rate status behind giant graphics and stupid little blurbs. I didn't know that it would turn national news stories of profound importance into background music. In short, I didn't know it would be the ruination of the newspaper.

I thought I would try to find out the impetus behind the decline and what I found was this American Journalism Review article from last fall. In it, AJR "senior editor" and University of Maryland teacher Carl Sessions Stepp takes the most positive spin on the movement toward tiny stories on the nation's front pages imaginable (you have to check out the absolutely ridiculous little thing about acorns). Don't be fooled, Stepp is full of more crap than a Louisiana pig barn. He writes that tiny blurb/stories are often "clever" and "increasingly valued and rewarded with good play." He continues:

"While it remains true that newsroom accolades still attach more to mega-projects than mini-tales, short pieces can amass their own recognition and status."

Oh Lord, it's bad stuff -- and to think Stepp is out there teaching our young people how to be reporters. Scary. But guess who takes a front-and-center role in Stepp's slop-fest? Yes, indeed, our own Mr. Maucker. To wit:

One top editor and fervent convert is Earl Maucker, editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. In May, his paper overhauled its front page, devoting a third of the space to digest items and encouraging editors to offer no-jump stories.

Maucker called on the paper's marketing department to distribute to the newsroom research it had gathered from local content studies and focus group results as well as research from the Readership Institute. Then he and his news staff acted.

"What we're trying to do is move quickly," Maucker says. "What can we do with existing resources and existing staff to identify these readership trends and then go make something happen?"

There you have it. The marketing department was behind this disastrous re-design, with Maucker, apparently preoccupied with "readership trends" rather than good journalism, pushing it along all the way. I can't believe how grotesque and disgusting this all is, but I'll move on with the Steppfest:

So the Sun-Sentinel front page now features bite-size stories on topics such as the chances that a hurricane will strike this season or workers calling in sick when a blockbuster movie premieres. Maucker wrote a Sunday column explaining the changes to readers. "We're just trying to provide a more useful newspaper," he wrote. "In this 24-hour-a-day news cycle, newspapers must deliver something extra."

But in an interview, Maucker added something else: "I want to encourage the staff to think creatively and have a little fun with the paper."

Okay, I'll give you time for a bathroom break so you can unleash your lunch all over the unsuspecting commode ... there, now we'll move on. The truth is that Maucker has basically killed the only thing that newspapers do that nobody else in the "24-hour-a-day news cycle" does: Report in-depth news.

Now it's stupid blurbs and nonsensical graphics. Take this nugget from today's front-page:

Bush comes out fighting The president began a series of speeches to counter opposition to the war in Iraq, saying that premature withdrawal of U.S. troops would lead to a more dangerous terrorist state. It is the third time in less than a year he has launched such a public relations offensive.

That's what you get when the president of your country is out there rallying the country to more unnecessary wars. Have you heard these speeches? Bush says we're in a "long war" like two dozen times and says the conflict is going to shape the 21st Century. He says we need more military action, not less, and that "law enforcement" won't do the job (forgetting, perhaps, that the London terrorists were caught with good police work, not goddamn bombs). Our president says that stability is a quaint old idea from the Cold War and that Iraq is the front-line for the century-long war. This after his unwarranted invasion of that country turned it into a festering pit of civil war and the graveyard of going on 3,000 Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis. And all it's going to cost us is $400 billion or so. For now.

The media was asleep when the Iraq War began and it's asleep now. I know the Sun-Sentinel doesn't consider itself a serious newspaper anymore, but could anybody have dreamed how bad it would be? That all we would get (other than a short AP story on page A3) would be: "Bush Comes Out Fighting"?

How clever.