To cut costs, we're using fewer words

May 20, 2001|By Dave Barry | Dave Barry,Knight Ridder / Tribune

On behalf of the newspaper industry (new, cost-cutting motto: "All the News That") I wish to announce some changes we're making to serve you better.

When I say "serve you better," I mean "increase our profits." We newspapers are very big on profits these days. We're a business, just like any other business, except that we employ English majors.

To help you better understand our current situation, let's review the history of newspaper finances:

The earliest known newspaper, published in 59 B.C. in Rome, was called "Acta Diurna" (literally, "The Portland Oregonian"). The first issue offered coverage of Roman politics ("Strom Thurmond Elected To Senate"); science news ("Study Shows Thunder Is Actually Gods Burping"); and an early episode of the comic strip "Nancy," in which Sluggo tries to avoid paying admission to the Colosseum by peeking through a knothole, and, to the amusement of Nancy and Aunt Fritzi, gets a spear right through the eyeball. Unfortunately, "Acta Diurna" was not profitable, because every copy had to be entirely hand-written by slaves (called "reporters"); if a major story broke, a huge hairy man (the "editor") would yell "Stop the presses!" and whack them with a club.

The first important financial advance for newspapers came in 1451 when Johann Gutenberg (literally, "Joe Goodberg") invented the printing press, which made it possible for a newspaper to cheaply and accurately reproduce every single error thousands of times. But the real financial turning point came in 1609, when the publisher of the German newspaper "Der Postentimesennewsenregisterentribune" (literally, "Grit") invented the "Presidents Day sale," which made modern newspaper advertising possible, and which is still in use today, although nobody has any idea who the "presidents" are.

The newspaper industry then spread to America, where, by the 20th century, virtually every city, no matter how small, had a locally owned newspaper with a name like "The Chronic Prevaricator" or "The Register-Sphincter," which kept the community abreast of local politics ("City Council Attacked By Pig") as well as national issues ("Strom Thurmond Still Alive"). These papers were family operations run by people who were less concerned about making large profits than about keeping their body parts out of the presses.

But in the past few decades, all of these newspapers were purchased by large corporations, which were in turn purchased by larger corporations, and so on, so that today the entire American newspaper industry has been glommed together into one giant media conglomerate owned by Wall Street, which frankly does not care what your city council did. What Wall Street cares about is profits. Here at the newspaper, we get hourly phone calls from Wall Street.

"Send more profits!" Wall Street shouts, then slams down the receiver. We must comply, because otherwise Wall Street would shut down the newspaper, and we would starve to death, because, as English majors, we have no useful skills.

So the "bottom line" is that we've had to cut costs. Here are some of the ways we're doing this:

Recycling stories: Rather than go to the expense of writing a whole new story, we're re-running earlier ones. For example, every day for the past five years, we've run the same story on fighting in the Middle East ("Middle East Fighting Again"). In fact, Yasser Arafat died in 1998.

Staff cutbacks: The typical newspaper staff has been reduced to one editor, one managing editor, 14 assistant managing editors, 39 deputy assistant managing editors, and one reporter. The editors spend their days holding meetings to think of new ways to cut costs, while the reporter (who, for budgetary reasons, is not allowed to leave the building) looks out the window, in case news occurs in the parking lot.

Product placement: You're going to see more sentences like this one, from a recent front-page story in The Philadelphia Inquirer: " 'We are seriously considering the use of nuclear weapons against China,' stated President Bush, who then took a long sip from a refreshing, ice-cold Diet Pepsi."

Using fewer words: Not need adjectives, adverbs. Nouns, verbs can communicate story gist. ("Middle East fighting.")

Weaker endings to columns.

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