Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), Miracle of the Concrete Jesus & Other Stories, and several Kindle ebooks.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Squirming and Yearning and Reading the Paper

One of my earliest literary memories is that of reading the daily paper—or having it read to me. Back in the later 1940s and early 1950s, when the Roanoke World-News (which ceased to exist decades ago) hit the front porch, I’d fetch it in and Mama would read me the funnies while I squirmed on her lap. She even read “Henry,” which didn’t have any words.

“Well, there’s Henry,” she’d say and then describe what Henry was doing. I’d follow along.

After she’d read the news to herself, I’d take the paper, spread it out on the floor, and look at the pictures. If I put my eyes close to the page, I could see that the black and white pictures were made of gazillions of little dots. Meanwhile, the newsprint blackened my elbows and arms.

We didn’t have many books in the house then, unless you counted my Little Golden Books. Once in a while Mama read McCall’s magazine and I got to cut out the Betsy McCall paper doll when she was finished, but the newspaper was our main source of news and entertainment. In those pre-TV days, it was our link to the outside world.

I’ve been reading the Roanoke paper for a half-century, and I’ve noticed it’s declined quite a bit—especially in the last year or so. For one thing, it has way less news, and what little news it has usually isn’t well written. They even made the page size smaller. And thinner. They took out the Virginia section, under the pretense of combining it with the main section. (This has caused much strife among couples who used to divide up the morning paper for breakfast reading.)

A lot of the news isn’t actually news—more like fluff. Few of the stories begin with a lead anymore.

The RT does provide me—an ex-English teacher—considerable amusement as I read sentences laden with strings of propositional phrases, passive verbs, incorrect pronoun usage, etc.

Last Sunday’s paper took me 20 minutes to read, but then I don’t read the classified ads (I’m not buying anything), the sports section (I don’t play or watch sports), or the numerous ad inserts except for the grocery coupons (I’m not buying anything except groceries). Many pages were dominated by large photographs, such as last Sunday’s book page.

Does the RT staff think that a picture is worth a thousand words and can thus eliminate many words by running a gigantic graphic? It seems to me that two or three book reviews would fit into the space that picture occupies.

Graphics dominated the front page of Sunday’s Extra section, which also had some black text on a gray background. Do they try to make the text as unreadable as possible? Plus the page contained an announcement of what will be in Monday’s Extra.

The Horizon Section had the requisite large graphic and a section with black text on a light gray background.

Last Sunday’s paper contained column by the editor, who compared the movie “State of Play” to the realities of newspaper work. The second sentence grabbed my attention:
Russell Crowe's murky ethics and action-hero antics make most journalists squirm in their seats, yearning for a dignified remake of “All the President's Men.”

Um, am I the only one who noticed that the participial phrase was misplaced? (The seats are yearning?)

Let’s do a bit of editing and change the participle to a verb:

Russell Crowe's murky ethics and action-hero antics make most journalists squirm in their seats and yearn for a dignified remake of "All the President's Men."

See? Now the sentence makes sense. The journalists squirm and yearn; the seats don’t do anything. But does the sentence even need the squirming part?

Russell Crowe's murky ethics and action-hero antics make most journalists yearn for a dignified remake of "All the President's Men."

See how much better that is?

But my biggest problem with that column is that the editor thinks that the RT is doing a fine job. Of course, she’s young and doesn’t remember how things used to be. Dan Smith, over on his Fromtheeditr blog, gnawed over the column last Sunday. (I agree with him!)

Just in case the powers that run the RT are reading this blog, I have some suggestions to make the RT better:

  • Concentrate on content. Reduce the size of graphics. Reduce the size of most headlines. Eliminate color from most pictures. Save the color pictures for the blog. Use black text on a white background—think readability.
  • Put more than three stories on the front page. Look at the front page from this 1946 issue of Roanoke World News. See how crammed with info it is?

  • Eliminate the fluff. I’m not interested in the reporters’ feelings. They can share feelings on their blogs. Maybe even in columns, though I’d prefer ideas to feelings. Concentrate on facts in news stories.
  • Write tight. Cut the long, loopy sentences. Condense sentences that have three or more propositional phrases. Use passive verbs only when absolutely necessary.
  • Use good grammar. (Don’t get me started on this!)
  • Eliminate all the regional sections that come out every Friday and put all that news in the regular edition. I used to teach in Roanoke, so I’d like to read about what’s happening in various schools. I used to live in Southwest County, so I’d like to read the news that’s now reserved for SwoCo. I have friends in Botetourt County and Salem, so I’d like to read the news from there. Those little neighborhood papers, while generating more ad dollars, divide the readership. The readership should be united.
  • Don’t refer readers to RT blogs for “more info.” Many RT readers are older. Some don’t even own computers. Put all the important stuff in the news story. Use the blogs for fluff and reporters’ feelings. Make the print edition complete in itself.

I have a hunch that the powers that be at the RT won’t heed my suggestions. Looks like I’ll squirm and yearn for the newspaper the way it used to be.

Meanwhile, today’s Extra section was dominated by a large graphic:



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Blogger CountryDew said...

Maybe we should all print out your column and mail it to the RT. Doubt they'd listen though - it's all about the dollar now. The vision of the Fourth Estate has been lost to business and capitalism, and more lofty goals of educating, offering true news, and ensuring that governing bodies uphold the constitution have been lost. I suspect they are gone forever.

7:06 AM  
Blogger Roanoke RnR said...

When I was writing for the Neighbors South section I had readers write me complaining that my column wasn't in the Salem section or Northeast, etc. I questioned many times why the paper had all these separate "neighborhoods" when they were just divided by a street. I wanted to know what was going on in Botetout or the other side of town as well. I was told that's the way it's always been, and in some cities like Orlando, they have 20-something different divided neighborhood sections, or something like that.

As far as the "news" goes, I usually read things at least a day before it ends up in the paper. I didn't bother renewing my subscription this year, but for the last 29 days they've still been sending me a paper. I'm just waiting for someone to call me so I can give them my long list of reasons why I won't be subscribing anymore.

Reading the editor's column it sounds like they're doing peachy keen and they don't give a darn about subscribers as they only garner 20% of their income from them so I'm sure they could care less what I think. Once the advertisers figure out that they're not reaching as many people as they thought they're gonna start pulling out too.

7:54 AM  

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