News copy cats

February 19, 1999|By Ernest F. Imhoff

WHEN you visit The Newseum, a free newspaper museum in Arlington, Va., you can see 50 front pages of that day's American newspapers. Many look alike.

Certain elements create the feeling of sameness. Small headlines explaining big headlines. Boxed headlines (called skyboxes) across the top. Indexes and digests of articles.

There's some irony there. The Newseum's history gallery exhibits a rich variety of press individualism: Ernie Pyle's typewriter, H. L. Mencken's press badge, Nellie Bly's travels.

You see similarity when you glance at the main local sections of newspapers. Centerpieces or news-feature articles with illustrations or photographs positioned in the top middle of the front local page have become a staple.

Wait a few years and they may disappear. It's an old newspaper shell game.

The U.S. newspaper industry might consider the implications of cookie-cutter newspapers. When editors simply borrow from each other, originality is lacking in look and substance.

Friendly competition

Being in the communications business, editors and reporters from different places talk to each other, read each others' papers, go to the same conventions, hire the same newspaper designers, change jobs, work for chains and live in one-newspaper towns and cities where readers often can't comparison shop between competitors.

Ideas get popular fast. They fade fast.

A typical example of this phenomenon in the 1970s was "Updates" -- typically articles that brought readers up to date on stories put on last year's trash heap.

The word got out. Scores of papers, including the now-defunct Evening Sun and The Sun, picked up the idea. The Update fad lasted a few years, then faded. Too bad. Readers often wonder about stories that were hot months ago but went cold.

A few newspapers, like the Evening Sun, did stories on nursing home problems in the 1960s and 1970s. Many papers did them but then veered off to other outrages. It's possible many nursing homes have the same problems or worse.

When USA Today began in 1982, many traditional newspaper people ridiculed it as McPaper -- a comic book for semi-literates. But soon they were copying it like crazy, using colorful graphs, charts, short stories, lists of things, one-paragraph news bites.

There are lots of examples of genteel newspaper piracy. Modular makeup (words and pictures in those nice shapes). Op/ed pages (opinion pages opposite editorial pages). Expanded correction boxes. Color photographs. On front pages, the dominance of indexes, photographs, artwork and headlines coupled with only a few paragraphs of actual articles before they continue on other pages.

Papers will always carry the same obvious big news stories. The sameness of much of the U.S. press, however, helps explain the media jumping in unison on today's thrill ride and soon leaping on the next roller coaster: Whitewater, Clinton-Lewinsky, Princess Diana, O. J. Simpson.

Is this great minds thinking alike? Stealing? Or learning from one's betters? Laziness? Or the decline of originality? Or is this a little of everything?

Without question, borrowing good ideas can benefit readers.

Decades ago, the Louisville Courier-Journal became for many the most ethical paper in the Fourth Estate universe with its ethics code and its first ombudsman. This raised other papers' consciousness about ethics and being accountable to readers.

For some papers, it lasted. Ethics rules helped reduce conflicts of interest. Editors listened more to people who complained about newspaper content. For others, it was another fad. Ombudsmen writing columns about their own papers never caught fire. The number of reader representatives in the country -- about 35 -- has been roughly the same for years.

If they're not talking to peers elsewhere, editors spend much of their professional lives in their own meetings, where they reinforce old opinions and see the same old faces.

Getting out more on the street is invigorating. It can be a good antidote to the sameness that nibbles away at newspaper credibility.

Ernest F. Imhoff, The Sun's ombudsman in the early 1990s, retired last week after 35 years with The Sun and Evening Sun.

Pub Date: 2/19/99

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