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On the same morning in mid-May that I read The New York Times’ gripping, deeply researched advance on the Bill Cosby trial, I witnessed a display of human nature that made me question whether the Times’ recent format changes make sense.
The trial story appeared atop the cover of the Arts section, not on Page A1, despite the widespread celebrity of Cosby and the societal significance of the charges against him — that he drugged and then had sex with an unwilling woman, a pattern he is rumored to have repeated several times.
At the bottom of Page A1 was a small block tease – a non-photo tease buried among 11, some with photos – for the trial story, guiding readers to Page C1. And on Page A2 was a large tease written by the co-author of the Arts section Cosby story. The tease explained the co-author’s continuing work on Cosby’s legal travails.
The New York Times has changed its Pages A2 and A3. Formerly on weekdays, A2 had an index and corrections, while A3 had news stories. Now A2 is dominated by a feature labeled, in two verbose decks, “Inside The Times (…) The Story Behind The Story.” In each such feature, a reporter metaphorically puts his or her human face (minus photo) on the story we readers are being urged to read “Inside The Times.”
The rest of A2 and all of A3 now have a variety of snippets, trivia and other short items that no doubt a focus group concluded would attract otherwise unlikely readers.
I resent all the teasing and previewing. The Arts page Cosby story was extremely well done, part narrative, part analysis, and it didn’t require all the nanny-like nudges, most specifically, the “Inside The Times …” overkill.
Why not put the Cosby story on Page A1? OK, it was a huge Trump-tastic news day, so Cosby got crowded off A1, but why not give it a stronger tease on Page A1 and run it on Page A3, implying that it is significant news, not meant merely for those who follow Arts?
I’m sure it’s because we – not just The New York Times – are scrambling. The tidbitting of Pages A2 and A3 apparently is designed to lure in the young, short-attention-span folks held captive by the snippet life.
Entranced by electronic marvels, kids ignore anything ploddingly traditional, right?
Yet shortly after I read the Cosby story, I took my morning walk, which means twice passing the same school-bus stop. On that morning, across the street from the bus stop, a large, noisy yellow Caterpillar excavator was clawing through mounds of dirt, prepping the land for development.
On my first pass, a half-dozen elementary-school youngsters were texting or electronically surfing while another six were watching the construction activity. When I made my second pass minutes later, all of them were staring at the Excavatorsaurus Rex.
Sure, texting and surfing are addictive; but that’s because they blend action, change and conflict, elements that all people, young and old, enjoy, and elements of not only every construction project ever built, but also every good story ever written.
I admire The New York Times’ boldness to blow up the traditional Pages A2 and A3 and try something new. But I disagree with the paper’s apparent assumptions, first that young people cannot be trusted to recognize good storytelling, and second that tantalizing tidbits will so dazzle young people that they will be fooled into embracing a newspaper they otherwise would ignore.
And I question requiring reporters to write what amount to “How I Got The Story” tales on A2. (A couple of weeks after the Cosby stories ran, that A2 feature, by a sportswriter covering the NBA, included this insightful sequence: “Cleveland and Miami are both fine cities with friendly, welcoming people. But they are very different cities.”)
Surely the shrinking rosters of reporters nationwide should mean not assigning superfluity.
If kids set aside electronic fluff for watching the real world, there is hope for those of us who devote our lives to making that world come alive, not in snippets, but in sentences and paragraphs. My hope is that after school that day, the kids resumed watching the excavator and that night, they talked to their parents about what they saw and asked about machinery and construction and commerce and growth.
One more thing: I used to know exactly where The New York Times’ corrections were, on Page A2 (except Sundays); now I hunt for them. I used to praise the Times for putting the corrections in such a prominent spot, as if the paper were saying, “We are proud to show how diligent we are in correcting our mistakes.”
Who knows? Such dependable, trustworthy behavior someday might inspire even those with short attention spans to own up to their mistakes.
THE FINAL WORD: The noun “individual” almost always is stilted language meaning “person,” as in “Authorities say they hope to question an individual seen at the accident site.”