Our series on community journalism continues: Lesson 1 concerned how to get an article ready for publication. Lesson 2 was how to arrange a group of articles into several discrete sections that make up an entire newspaper. Now the penultimate class (that’s right, this has turned into a four-part series) on how to judge a newspaper over the course of time, and whether or not this paper measures up to the standard.
First a disclaimer: What makes one newspaper good or even excellent is not what makes another one excel. We at U.S. 1 have a wonderful calendar of events. But the lack of such a calendar in another paper is not necessarily a weakness in that paper, just as our failure to have a comics page or a sports section does not diminish the overall quality of our paper.
And in judging any paper, you have to read more than a single issue. With the possible exception of the New York Times or Washington Post, most newspapers today are not big enough to show off all their strengths (or weaknesses) in any single issue. Drop three or four issues in a row down on the kitchen counter and peruse them — that will usually tell the tale.
When I force myself off the treadmill to review this paper, I compare it to a chef-owned and operated restaurant. It’s not a huge, internationally renowned venue like Lutece. It’s also not a chain — it’s no TGIFridays. When it started in 1984 I would have compared it to Roberta’s in the Princeton Shopping Center. At the best of those chef-owned restaurants you expect to be greeted at the door by a maitre d’ who at least half recognizes you as a regular customer. You expect the service to be efficient and the menu to include both some standard items that are always rewarding as well as a few innovations that may or may not be to your liking, but that are worth trying. You wouldn’t be disappointed if the management some night let a piano player or a jazz combo play in the background. At the end of the evening, if you lingered over a Sambuca, you would see the chef-owner come out of the kitchen, a little gritty from the evening’s work, and join you at your table for a few minutes.
Here at U.S. 1, our Between the Lines column on page 2 does a good job as the maitre d’, and our Survival Guide section, Preview, and Life in the Fast Lane are the standard fare that readers can count on — and get good value for their money (in this case their valuable time spent). At the end of the evening, the old man comes out from the kitchen and joins us in this column.
And U.S. 1 gives you the occasional special event: the Business Directory, the U.S. 1 Calendar, and the Summer Fiction issue come to mind.
But in my perhaps overly critical view we have not done so well with the innovative items that pop up on the menu at the best of the chef-owned restaurants. In our case it’s the occasional story that comes in from left field that no other paper is in position to print. Over the years we have had some: The profile of the Menendez brothers; an unusual survey of the funeral industry; a woman’s battle with breast cancer; a mother’s account of the death of her son.
Lately the paper has been consumed by the standard fare, necessary but not sufficient — in my opinion — to earn greatest raves from the readers.
What’s happened? In part producing the standard fare has become more difficult. If 15 years ago we shortchanged the calendar listings to tackle some difficult special subject, no one would have cared; today we believe the minimum standard is much higher. And we crank it out every week, as opposed to once a month or every two weeks when some of those landmark stories mentioned above were printed.
Over the years helpful suggestions to writers become ironclad rules. I can imagine a chef telling one of his assistants not to use a certain spice in a certain dish — no garlic on lamb, he might say. Years later a bright new sous chef comes on board with a recipe that involves garlic on lamb in some novel combination. His idea is immediately rejected — no garlic on lamb.
Around here I cringe at the "rules" I have heard attributed to me. Why doesn’t anyone remember Rule No. 1 — that rules are meant to be broken. Writers still ask me how many words I want a story to be: The answer they are looking for is 950 (this column’s word count) or 1,400 (the count of the directory fraud article on page 8 of this issue). My answer is whatever it takes to tell the story effectively — if it goes over 6,000 words let me know so we can order more newsprint.
In many towns across the country readers give their newspapers nicknames. Some people used to refer to U.S. 1 as "U.S. Fun." Putting the fun back into U.S. 1 is part of the challenge. As this paper was going to press, Barbara Fox and Nicole Plett kicked around the ideas from this column. Then they turned their attention to the headline on page 1. A first draft referring to "non-trad" music was replaced by what you see now: "When Irish Eyes Are Scowling."
Please read the story to understand the reference to scowling. But remember Rule No. 2: Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good headline.