Fewer Words; Less Filling

 

                                    by WALTER BRASCH

 

The Reduced Shakespeare Co. cleverly and humorously abridges all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays to 97 minutes. Short of having a set of Cliff’s Notes or a collection of Classic Comics, sources of innumerable student essays for more than a half-century, it may be the least painful way to “learn” Shakespeare. The critically-acclaimed show, in addition to being a delightful way to spend part of an evening, is a satiric slap upside the head of the mass media.

The condensation of the media may have begun in 1922 with the founding of Reader’s Digest, the pocket-sized magazine which keeps its 17 million world-wide subscribers happy by a combination of original reporting and mulching articles from other magazines. Books also aren’t safe.

For more than six decades, Digest editors have been grinding four books into the space of one, calling them “condensed” or “selected,” and selling them by subscription to people with limited attention spans. These are the people who actively participate in society’s more meaningful activities, such as watching Snooki and JWoww on “Jersey Shore” or swapping lies with the gentrified folk at the country club. However, most media condense life to save money and improve corporate profits.

Book publishers routinely order authors to reduce the number of manuscript pages, saving production and distribution costs. The printed book will always have a place, but publishers are now deleting print production and putting their books onto Kindle and Nook, reducing page size to a couple of sizes smaller than the first TV screens. Because reading takes time, and time needs to be abbreviated for the MTV Go-Go Generation, chapters are shorter, and book length has been further reduced to adapt to e-book format.

Movie industry executives, eyes focused upon their wall safes, dictate shorter films, with more “action-paced” scene changes, an acknowledgement that Americans need constant stimulation. It isn’t uncommon for writers, faced by corporate demands to reduce the length of a screenplay, to indiscriminately rip out three or four pages in protest, only to find that the corporate suits instead of being appalled are, in fact, pleased.

Scripted half-hour TV shows were once 26 minutes, with four minutes for promotions and commercials. Now, the average half-hour show is 22 minutes; the average hour show is about 45 minutes, with at least two sub-plots because producers believe viewers don’t have the attention spans to follow only one plot line.

In radio and television news, the seven-second sound bite is now standard, forcing news sources to become terse and witty, though superficial. News stories themselves usually top out at 90 seconds, about 100–150 words. An entire newscast usually has fewer words than the average newspaper front page.

An exception is the music industry. At one time, popular songs were two to three minutes, some of it because of the technological limits of recordings. During the past two decades, with the development of digital media, pop music has crept past four minutes average. The downside, however, is that writers are taking the same cutesy phrases and subjecting listeners to nauseous repetition.

Long-form journalism, which includes major features and in-depth investigations that can often run 3,000 or more words, has largely been replaced by short-form news snippets, best represented by Maxim and USA Today.

USA Today condenses the world into four sections. Publishers of community newspapers, citing both USA Today’s format and nebulous research about reader attention span, impose artificial limits on stories. Thirty column inches maximum per news story, with 12 to 15 inches preferred, is a common measure.

When the newspaper industry was routinely pulling in about 20–30 percent annual profits, the highest of any industry, publishers were routinely delusional, believing that was the way it was supposed to be and would always be. Instead of improving work conditions and content, they increased shareholder dividends and executive bonuses. When advertising and circulation began to drop, they made numerous changes to keep those inflated profits.

Publishers downsized the quality, weight, and size of paper. Page sizes of 8-1/2 by 11 inches are still the most common magazine size, but several hundred magazines are now 8- by 10-1/2 inches. Newspaper page width has dropped to 11–12 inches, from almost 15-1/2 inches during the 1950s.

Faced by advertising and circulation freefall the past decade, publishers cut back the number of pages. More significantly, they began a systematic decimation of the editorial staff, cutting reporters and editors.

Faced by heavier workloads and tight deadlines, many reporters merely dump their notebooks into type, rather than craft them and then submit the story to a copyeditor to fine tune it so it is tight, has no holes, and no conflicting data. In the downsized newspaper economy, stories often pass from reporter to a quick scan by an editor and then into a pre-determined layout, all of it designed to cause fewer problems for overworked editors.

The solution to the “newspaper-in-crisis” wailing, with innumerable predictions that print newspapers will soon be as dead as the trees that give them nourishment, may not be in cutting staff, and replacing the news product with fluff and syndicated stories that fill pages, but are available on hundreds of websites, but in giving readers more. More reporters. More stories. And, most of all, more in-depth coverage of local people and issues, with each article well-reported, well-written, and well-edited.

[In a 40-year career in journalism, Walter Brasch has been an award-winning  newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, syndicated columnist, multimedia and TV writer-producer, and tenured full professor of mass communications. He says he’ll keep doing journalism until he gets it right. His current book, BEFORE THE FIRST SNOW, is an autobiographical mystery novel that includes a number of media observations.]

 

 

 

Fewer Words; Less Filling

 

                                    by WALTER BRASCH

 

The Reduced Shakespeare Co. cleverly and humorously abridges all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays to 97 minutes. Short of having a set of Cliff’s Notes or a collection of Classic Comics, sources of innumerable student essays for more than a half-century, it may be the least painful way to “learn” Shakespeare. The critically-acclaimed show, in addition to being a delightful way to spend part of an evening, is a satiric slap upside the head of the mass media.

The condensation of the media may have begun in 1922 with the founding of Reader’s Digest, the pocket-sized magazine which keeps its 17 million world-wide subscribers happy by a combination of original reporting and mulching articles from other magazines. Books also aren’t safe.

For more than six decades, Digest editors have been grinding four books into the space of one, calling them “condensed” or “selected,” and selling them by subscription to people with limited attention spans. These are the people who actively participate in society’s more meaningful activities, such as watching Snooki and JWoww on “Jersey Shore” or swapping lies with the gentrified folk at the country club. However, most media condense life to save money and improve corporate profits.

Book publishers routinely order authors to reduce the number of manuscript pages, saving production and distribution costs. The printed book will always have a place, but publishers are now deleting print production and putting their books onto Kindle and Nook, reducing page size to a couple of sizes smaller than the first TV screens. Because reading takes time, and time needs to be abbreviated for the MTV Go-Go Generation, chapters are shorter, and book length has been further reduced to adapt to e-book format.

Movie industry executives, eyes focused upon their wall safes, dictate shorter films, with more “action-paced” scene changes, an acknowledgement that Americans need constant stimulation. It isn’t uncommon for writers, faced by corporate demands to reduce the length of a screenplay, to indiscriminately rip out three or four pages in protest, only to find that the corporate suits instead of being appalled are, in fact, pleased.

Scripted half-hour TV shows were once 26 minutes, with four minutes for promotions and commercials. Now, the average half-hour show is 22 minutes; the average hour show is about 45 minutes, with at least two sub-plots because producers believe viewers don’t have the attention spans to follow only one plot line.

In radio and television news, the seven-second sound bite is now standard, forcing news sources to become terse and witty, though superficial. News stories themselves usually top out at 90 seconds, about 100–150 words. An entire newscast usually has fewer words than the average newspaper front page.

An exception is the music industry. At one time, popular songs were two to three minutes, some of it because of the technological limits of recordings. During the past two decades, with the development of digital media, pop music has crept past four minutes average. The downside, however, is that writers are taking the same cutesy phrases and subjecting listeners to nauseous repetition.

Long-form journalism, which includes major features and in-depth investigations that can often run 3,000 or more words, has largely been replaced by short-form news snippets, best represented by Maxim and USA Today.

USA Today condenses the world into four sections. Publishers of community newspapers, citing both USA Today’s format and nebulous research about reader attention span, impose artificial limits on stories. Thirty column inches maximum per news story, with 12 to 15 inches preferred, is a common measure.

When the newspaper industry was routinely pulling in about 20–30 percent annual profits, the highest of any industry, publishers were routinely delusional, believing that was the way it was supposed to be and would always be. Instead of improving work conditions and content, they increased shareholder dividends and executive bonuses. When advertising and circulation began to drop, they made numerous changes to keep those inflated profits.

Publishers downsized the quality, weight, and size of paper. Page sizes of 8-1/2 by 11 inches are still the most common magazine size, but several hundred magazines are now 8- by 10-1/2 inches. Newspaper page width has dropped to 11–12 inches, from almost 15-1/2 inches during the 1950s.

Faced by advertising and circulation freefall the past decade, publishers cut back the number of pages. More significantly, they began a systematic decimation of the editorial staff, cutting reporters and editors.

Faced by heavier workloads and tight deadlines, many reporters merely dump their notebooks into type, rather than craft them and then submit the story to a copyeditor to fine tune it so it is tight, has no holes, and no conflicting data. In the downsized newspaper economy, stories often pass from reporter to a quick scan by an editor and then into a pre-determined layout, all of it designed to cause fewer problems for overworked editors.

The solution to the “newspaper-in-crisis” wailing, with innumerable predictions that print newspapers will soon be as dead as the trees that give them nourishment, may not be in cutting staff, and replacing the news product with fluff and syndicated stories that fill pages, but are available on hundreds of websites, but in giving readers more. More reporters. More stories. And, most of all, more in-depth coverage of local people and issues, with each article well-reported, well-written, and well-edited.

[In a 40-year career in journalism, Walter Brasch has been an award-winning  newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, syndicated columnist, multimedia and TV writer-producer, and tenured full professor of mass communications. He says he’ll keep doing journalism until he gets it right. His current book, BEFORE THE FIRST SNOW, is an autobiographical mystery novel that includes a number of media observations.]

 

 

 

Miss America: Auditioning for Center Stage

 

 

by WALTER BRASCH     

      

Tucked between the New Hampshire primary and Ground Hog Day, and directly competing against an NFL playoff game, is Saturday night’s annual Miss America pageant.

Although the headquarters is still near Atlantic City, where it originated in 1921, the pageant—don’t call it a beauty contest—has been a part of the Las Vegas entertainment scene for eight years. Apparently, the Las Vegas motto of “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” wrapped itself around the pageant as well, with TV viewership dropping lower almost every year.

ABC-TV divorced Miss America in 2004, claiming irreconcilable differences. Viewership had fallen from a peak of 26.7 million in 1991 to an all-time low of 9.8 million, barely enough to keep a prime-time show on the air. The pageant’s CEO, trying to preserve what dignity was left, stated “We needed to find a better partner, one that better understands our values.”

Apparently better understanding Miss America’s values was Country Music Television (CMT). However, that marriage didn’t last, and Miss America then hooked up with the The Learning Channel (TLC). By 2007, only 2.4 million viewers tuned in to watch who would be the next beauty queen to want world peace, save the whales, and “do her country proud.”

Treating its demotion to the minor leagues as a chance for rehabilitation, the pageant made a few cosmetic changes, began playing with new ways of scoring, including viewer participation, and slowly brought its ratings back to about 4.5 million in 2010.

That’s when ABC-TV and Miss America, after a six-year divorce, fell in love again. Apparently, CMT and TLC “values” (and money) weren’t as good as a major network’s. Promising eternal faithfulness—as long as the ratings increased—the two lovebirds were seen by about 7.8 million.

Now, it may seem that only TV executives and advertisers should care about ratings, viewer demographics, and selling fluff. But the contestants are well-trained actors in the made-for-TV show, complete with celebrity judges, most of whom are there solely because they are—well—celebrities.

About one-third of all contestants say they want to go into communications. As in almost every pageant for the past four decades, several want to go into television. Miss Delaware and Miss Nevada both want to be talk show hosts. Miss Louisiana wants to anchor the “Today” show; to get to that lofty goal, she plans to first get a master’s in health communication. None of the contestants wanting to go into journalism have expressed any interest in first covering city council meetings, the courts, police, or Little League games. They plan to take their beauty and pageant poise, make up their hair and face, and stand in front of a camera to emphasize the reality that broadcast journalism has diminished to the point of style over substance.

Miss New York wants to be the editor of a fashion magazine. Miss Idaho wants to write for a health and fitness magazine. Miss Hawaii wants to be a film director; to do that, she plans to first get an MBA. There is no evidence she plans first to be an actor, set designer, writer, cinematographer, or in any of several dozen crafts.

Miss Utah says she wants to be an interpersonal communications presenter (whatever that is) and also a college dance team coach. Miss New Hampshire, who probably dressed Barbie dolls in corporate suits, says she wants to “own a large and prestigious advertising firm.” It’s doubtful she’ll want to modify the gibberish of the organization that, with all seriousness, says it “provides young women with a vehicle to further their personal and professional goals and instills a spirit of community service through a variety of unique nationwide community-based programs.”

A few contestants say they want to be “event planners,” as if there already aren’t enough people wasting their own lives by planning the lives of others.

Not planning to go into communications is Miss California who is earning a degree in something called “social enterprise.” That could be anything from learning how to use Facebook to mixing the drinks at upscale parties. Miss West Virginia says she wants to go into the military, and then become secretary of state. Perhaps one day she might work for the 2011 Miss America, whose goal is to become president.

Several contestants plan to get MBAs, but almost everyone wants to use that degree to go into—prepare yourself!—a non-profit social service agency.  It sounds good, and maybe they all mean it. But, dangle a six-figure salary, stock options, extensive perks, and a “golden parachute,” and most of them will run over the Red Cross so fast it’ll need blood transfusions.

Mixed into the career goals are some contestants who plan to be physicians, pharmacists, speech therapists, physical therapists, and others in the caring professions.  

Miss America doesn’t have to worry about a job or college for a year. Along with a paid chaperone, she will tour the country to sign autographs and give inspirational speeches about whatever her platform is—and, of course, to promote the Miss America Organization.

From the “toddlers and tiaras” stage to the stage at the Planet Hollywood Casino, beauty contestants are told how to look, act, and talk, even what to say or not say. The Miss America Organization—which makes the Mafia look like a second rate fraternity—doesn’t tell contestants they must attend college. But, every one of the state winners plans to be a college graduate.

There is a definite bias against those who don’t think attending college is important at this stage of their lives. And so, we don’t see talented actors, singers, dancers, and musicians who are bypassing college to attend specialized non-degree-granting schools and enter their professions. We don’t see contestants who, although beautiful and talented, are planning to be plumbers, electricians, or firefighter/paramedics. We don’t see contestants who want to be gardeners, floral arrangers, or chefs. And, we most assuredly don’t see women who are bypassing college to be part of major social movements.

[Walter Brasch, who attended several beauty pageants, although as a reporter and not as a contestant, is a social issues columnist and book author. His current book is Before the First Snow: Tales from the Revolution, available at www.amazon.com or www.greeleyandstone.com]

 

 

Making Sport of Our Future

 

by WALTER BRASCH

           

One of the fun things sports writers do is try to predict the winners and scores of upcoming games, from high school through the pros. For special “look-at-us-we’re important” bonus points, they create lists of “Top” teams and rank them, both pre-season and weekly.

Sports writers have some kind of genetic mutation that leads them to believe they know more about sports than the average schlump who spends almost $200 a year for a newspaper subscription and as much as $500 a year for all-access all-games everywhere cable coverage. However, the reality is that even the best prognosticators—sports writers love big words when they can pronounce them—have a record about as accurate as the horoscope on the comics page.

Nevertheless, the guesses and rankings by sportswriters are usually innocuous. Readers and viewers usually forget in a couple of days who says what, and go about their own lives trying to make a mediocre paycheck stretch until the end of the month.

Joining the “guess how bright I am” journalists are some reporters who cover national political races. Instead of researching and explaining candidate positions on numerous issues, and giving readers and viewers a greater understanding of how those positions could impact their own lives, these pompous scribblers have made politics another sports contest.

The national news media, secure in their perches in New York and Washington, D.C., several months ago began chirping about who will win the Iowa caucus. For the final few days, they parachuted into Iowa to let their readers and viewers think they were toughened field reporters with as difficult a job as combat correspondents in Iraq or Afghanistan. Like hungry puppies, they stayed close to the candidates, hoping for a morsel or two, digested it, passed it out of their system as wisdom, and haughtily predicted the winner would be Mitt Romney—no, wait—it’s Michele Bachman—no, we’re calling for a surprising victory by Herman Cain—stop-the-presses, Cain petered out—Newt Gingrich is definitely going to take Iowa—Rick Perry is our prediction— we predict Ron Paul might be ahead—the race is going to be tough, but based upon our superior knowledge because we’re the national news media and we’re infallible, and from projections we picked out of our butts we believe—.

The one candidate they discounted for almost all but the last week of the Iowa primary race was Rick Santorum. Not a chance, they declared. Weak campaign. Lack of funds. No charismatic razzle-dazzle. No vital signs. Dead as a 2-by-4 about to be sawed and covered by wallboard.

Santorum, of course, came within eight votes of taking the Iowa caucus. The news media then spent the next day telling us all about that campaign, much in the same way that a bubbly TV weather girl, who a week earlier predicted bright sunny skies for a week, tells us we had snow the past three days.

The national news media jetted out of Iowa faster than a gigolo leaving a plain rich girl for a plain richer one, and descended upon New Hampshire. In the granite state, they have been repeating their performance from Iowa. They have predicted who the “real” winners and losers are. They have tried to convince us they can actually talk to us common folk, so they are grabbing whoever they find to answer in less than ten seconds, “Who do you think will win?” After the New Hampshire primary concludes, Tuesday, the media will happily discard their snow coats for windbreakers and descend into South Carolina, where they will continue to treat a presidential race as little more than a sporting contest.

There’s a difference, however. Generally, whoever wins or loses a game doesn’t have much impact upon the rest of us, so we smile at the sportswriters’ attempts to predict outcomes and pretend they can analyze the impact of a reserve left tackle’s hangnail. Those who are elected to our city councils, state legislatures, Congress, and the Presidency do have an impact upon us. And we deserve a lot better than the arrogance of the news clan reporting the contests as if they were sporting events.

[Walter Brasch was a sportswriter and sports editor before becoming an award-winning public affairs/investigative reporter and columnist, who has covered several presidential campaigns. He was once a reporter for an Iowa newspaper. His current book is the critically-acclaimed social issues mystery-thriller, Before the First Snow.]

 

 

The Sanctimonious Scavengers of the Penn State Scandal

 

by WALTER BRASCH

 

There is nothing the media love more than a good celebrity sex scandal.

Since the story of Scarlett Johansson’s purloined nude pictures had run its course, and the media squeezed every drop of ink it could from the Kim Kardashian/Kris Humphries engagement/wedding/marriage/divorce, they had to find something else to feed the beast with the insatiable appetite.

Something else was Penn State. Neatly packaged for the media was the trifecta of what passes as journalism—sex, scandal, and celebrity. And so the media circus rolled into State College, salivating at their good fortune.

The “sex” part of the story was that Jerry Sandusky, former defensive coordinator of the Nittany Lions, was accused of 21 felony counts of sexual abuse of boys. A 23-page Grand Jury report, released Nov. 4 following a drawn-out three-year investigation, detailed some of the specifics. However, this story, no matter what the media say it is, is not about sex. It is about child molestation, child abuse, and endangering the welfare of a child. Big difference.

The “scandal” is that it appeared that high-ranking Penn State officials, although they restricted Sandusky’s access to campus, didn’t contact police or child protection services, possibly believing they were protecting the university’s image.

The “celebrity” part is Joe Paterno, who listened to a graduate assistant who says he saw an act of sodomy by Sandusky, and then, disgusted by what Sandusky may have done, reported it the athletics director and senior vice-president for administration. Paterno met his legal responsibility, and isn’t under any criminal investigation. Questions to Paterno in court would probably result in the defense objecting to hearsay testimony since Paterno never witnessed the act.  

Almost every Pennsylvania TV station and dozens of networks sent camera crews into State College. As the number of TV crews increased, the quality of reporting sank, as almost every on-air reporter seemed to feel a need to ask even dumber questions and make dumber statements than every other reporter. These are the TV stations that send camera crews to out-of-town football games, Spring training in Florida, and bowl games, yet have downsized their news staff, plead economic poverty, and failed to adequately cover critical news stories. In Pennsylvania, it has meant little original reporting about conflict-of-interest and ethics scandals in the state legislature. Sports, apparently, is “sexy”; the public’s money and legislature integrity aren’t.

These are the same members of the media who for many of Paterno’s 46 years as head coach had filed stories that he should step down after any two losses in a row, or during a losing season, or even a season that didn’t have enough wins. The media had also layered comments that Paterno was everything but senile, that he was too old to be coaching. But, Paterno, known in the media as “JoePa,” kept winning, and kept demanding academic and athletic excellence in addition to moral integrity from his players. The university’s library, not any of its athletic buildings, is named for him. America’s best-known coach was building not a place for future NFL stars, but a place where college students could supplement their education to become productive members of society. His graduation rate is among the highest in Division I athletics.

However, based upon the amount of newsprint and air time given to this story, you would swear that Paterno was guilty, arrested, and probably already convicted. The media almost forgot about Sandusky as they began piling on to Paterno. Six column headlines and five minute network stories dominated the news agenda. Like sharks, they smelled blood and circled their prey, a towering figure about to be toppled. With little evidence, these sanctimonious scavengers called for one of the most ethical and inspirational coaches and professors to resign, claiming he didn’t do enough, that he should have personally called the police rather than follow established protocol.

.Many of the media horde, who had never written any story about Penn State’s excellent academic and research programs, soon began pumping out ludicrous statements that Penn State’s reputation would be tarnished for years. Despite their self-righteous denials, the screeching of “Joe Must Go” in one-inch bold black headlines undoubtedly influenced the university’s board of trustees, which was constantly proving that incompetence isn’t just a media trait. Their attitude seemed to be not whether what Paterno did was a terminable offense, but that to terminate him would somehow save the university’s tarnished reputation—and maybe preserve the value of their own luxury seats at Beaver Stadium.

On Wednesday, Nov. 9, three days before the Penn State/Nebraska game, which was to be the last home game of the season, the Trustees, with a push from Gov. Tom Corbett, fired Paterno, thus justifying all the ink and air time spent by the media that seemed distracted from the real story—Sandusky, not Paterno, was arrested.

That night, thousands of students staged a demonstration of support for Paterno. The media called it a riot and almost universally condemned the students for exercising a First Amendment right of peaceful assembly and freedom of speech. What little damage done—the highest estimate was about $20,000—was by a relatively small number of participants.

On game day, the media camped in front of Paterno’s house. ESPN coverage of the game, which drew about twice as many viewers as expected, was constantly punctuated by the “scandal,” and what Paterno did and didn’t do. Tragedy had suddenly become a sport.

Contributing to the media’s shameful performance were mountains of crocodile tears, dripping with moral indignation. Had the media spent even a tenth of the time before the Penn State scandal to publish and air stories about child welfare problems, and what could be done to protect the most vulnerable of society, their myriad comments would have been credible.

In contrast to the masses, several reporters did credible reporting, including the hometown Centre Daily Times. But the best reporting might be that of Sara Ganim, who had begun her investigation first at the Centre Daily Times before moving to the Harrisburg Patriot-News. Three years after graduating from Penn State, she broke the story in March that the Grand Jury was investigating Sandusky and others. Her story at the time didn’t get much traction. But, for several months she meticulously gathered facts and wrote news, not opinion and speculation, which dominated the work of many of her colleagues, many of whom showed they were incapable of even reaching the journalistic standards of reporting at the National Enquirer.

Perhaps Joe Paterno should have done more; perhaps he should have called the police or at least followed-up with his earlier concern. But, we don’t know yet the facts.

One concern remains. Today, these Monday Morning Quarterbacks of the media and a pack of largely anonymous self-righteous fans all say that unlike Paterno they would have done “the right thing.” How many, if faced by the same set of circumstances, would have done “the right thing” a month ago?

 [Dr. Brasch had begun his journalism career as a sports writer and sports editor before moving into public affairs/investigative journalism. He is an award-winning syndicated columnist and retired journalism professor. His latest of 17 books is Before the First Snow, a story of the counter-culture.]

 

 

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