What's news? What do readers want?
These old questions have always vexed the newspaper industry, but they are more urgent today with newspapers dying or bleeding all across the land.
I think readers want information, lots of it, and hard news — crime, politics, taxes, sports scores, obits — leads the list. But lighter diversions are part of a successful newspaper, too.
I mull this because of a little news deja vu last week. TV stations in Little Rock pounced all over a story featuring controversy and pretty girls. It seems the Athletic Department at UALR wants to drop the cheerleading squad. (Cheerleading, if you didn't know, has become a highly competitive, difficult sport — gymnastics really.) The UALR team had finished sixth in the country. But officials apparently want to drop cheerleading in favor of an “NBA-style dance team.” They were quoted as saying “athletic appearance” was a must.
Let me translate. Somebody at UALR wants fewer pyramids and backflips and more sex appeal on the floor at Trojan games. Athletic “appearance” is not the same thing as athletic “ability.”
This looked like natural fodder for our Arkansas Blog. I posted a link to the Fox 16 article on the controversy and included a photo of the Trojan cheerleaders at work.
Not long after, I got a note of chastisement from a reader who marked the fall of the old Arkansas Gazette from the Sunday in the 1980s that it carried a Page One article about controversial garb adopted by the UALR Trojan Motion, a racy dance team of the Coach Mike Newell era. The reader urged the Blog to resist such trivia, lest we go the way of the Arkansas Gazette.
Well. I've told this story before. But shoot if you must this old gray head that killed the Arkansas Gazette with a photo of Trojan Motion.
I assigned the fateful story about the form-fitting spandex uniforms adopted by the Trojan dancers. Why? The use of the then-new fabric at a Mississippi college had prompted a big controversy that made national headlines. If there's any staple in newspaper reporting, it's looking for local angles to national stories. We had one. The Trojans had gone spandex.
A veteran news reporter did the story. Come one slow Sunday, a veteran news editor placed the story on page one. (I dare you to search the paper that Sunday for more interesting fare.) But the story became Exhibit 1 for the demise of the Gazette at the hands of the bloodless corporate Gannettoids who had taken over ownership of the historic paper. Never mind that long-time Gazetteers (most of them native Arkies) bore all the blame.
Had the story appeared in the competing Arkansas Democrat, it wouldn't have caused a peep of protest, of course. The old, gray Gazette was held to higher standards of propriety. Newfangled color photography had been used by the Democrat for years, but it was viewed as tarting up the Gazette when the paper finally added color.
Pardon the reminiscing. But I thought I'd take the occasion again to say that I think the objectification of women to entertain mostly male athletic audiences sounds like a news story. Then. Now.
Not that a newspaper editor is above capitalizing on the objectification of women by running a photo of same in a high-minded report on such a controversy. And if this should happen to attract a few readers to the space wrapped around the advertising, well, thank goodness. We need all the readers we can get for that other, important stuff.