I HAVE several guesses why young people don't read newspapers as much as young people used to. One, because newspapers no longer print the kind of news most people want to read.
How about the condemned man's last meal, for instance? The other day I read a news story about a murderer eating a steak before being dispatched. It was the first such story I'd seen in a newspaper since the Supreme Court revived capital punishment by popular demand.
When I was one among millions of young and avid newspaper readers, the papers always reported the final meals consumed by people about to walk the last mile.
There's something else: the last mile. In those eagerly read newspapers of old, people were not just executed. They walked the last mile. They paid the ultimate penalty.
It was stuff like this that snared American youth and hooked them on a lifelong newspaper habit. In today's papers, however, nobody seems to walk the last mile. I suppose such writing could get a reporter fired these days when understatement is cherished, understatement being the appropriate style for bleak ages.
So bleak is the present age that youth's healthy curiosity about what food a man might need to get him down that last mile is discouraged as morbid vulgarity.
Nowadays we deprive children of the gory pleasures of Grimm's fairy tales and introduce them to literature with stories about bears that keep their bedrooms neat. No wonder they grow up watching Arsenio Hall instead of reading William Faulkner and trying to find out why patriotism might require death in the sand.
The Washington Post ran an interminable piece Sunday on the effort of the Boca Raton News to create a newspaper attractive to people who no longer read newspapers. I didn't finish the story, which went on for a full page, and then some.
That's more prose about trends in journalism than anyone should be expected to read. After several hundred words of it, I gathered it was saying that the Boca Raton News was following the example of USA Today, known in the trade as "the paper for people who don't have time for television's fuller coverage."
I stopped reading, my eyes misted over, and fell into melancholia about last meals, last miles and ultimate penalties. If it's readership you're after, I thought, surely a newspaper is better off devoting a full page to trends in last-meal eating at the death house.
With all that space, a reporter could detail every last meal consumed since the Supreme Court restored capital punishment. What proportion of condemned people chose seafood over meat? How many tried to have it both ways by ordering surf 'n' turf? Did most order a green vegetable or exploit their unusual position to say, "To hell with dietary balance -- hold the spinach"?
All right, a full page is too much, even for a subject this interesting. Still, even a full column of it would be more stimulating than half a column about newspaper people wondering why Americans don't much read newspapers anymore. Boring subjects repel readers.
Moreover, most newspaper writing is extremely dull, probably because too many college graduates have chosen journalism over Wall Street and would rather order a last meal than be caught with a cliche.
In their heyday most American papers were read by a not terribly literate population which didn't mind a cliche as long as it produced an image with some emotional juice in it. "Walking the last mile" was shopworn prose, but it made even a child pause and think: Yes, there were times when a walk of just a few feet could sometimes be a mile, maybe a thousand miles, if you considered it poetically.
The cliche-ridden journalism of the past produced images in the reader's mind by seamlessly stringing together a lot of familiar old phrases. Now newspapers have surrendered images to television, which strings together the same tired old pictures again and again: the fire, the body bag, cars skidding in blizzard, scattered airplane wreckage, president arriving at airport, waving president entering helicopter, and so on. What tired cliches these all are, yet Americans say it's their favorite way to get the news.
Hackneyed treatment of trivial events is what fetches the crowd. Newspapers have abandoned their great hack tradition.