What, if anything, is exciting about being a newspaper editor?
Well, let me tell you. In the last issue of U.S. 1, the Summer Fiction issue, I deleted the last sentence — the very last sentence — of a 1,500 word short story and I think I made the story better in the process. The writer (whose identity I will withhold here, but who I may well point out at our Summer Fiction reception this Thursday, August 8, from 5 to 7 at Barnes & Noble) had shown the denouement of her story perfectly well; the last sentence only told the readers what they already knew.
In that same issue, I asked the writer of another short story to change his narrator from the first person to third person. The central character in the story died in the end, and as a reader I was distracted to discover that the character I had grown somewhat close to had actually been speaking all the time from the grave. The change, and explaining it to the writer, got me thinking about narrative point of view and distance — the stuff of my college English studies.
Being editor of U.S. 1 doesn’t get much more exciting than that.
I got thinking about the excitement of my job after reading a brash, tell-all book written by a former editor of the Trentonian, the publication that — along with the Times of Trenton — gives our capital city the honor of being one of the very few remaining two-newspaper towns in America.
One of U.S. 1’s freelancers passed the book along to me about the same time I was mired in selecting and editing the submissions to that Summer Fiction issue. The title alone was enough to add it to my reading list: "Tabloid from Hell — The Rise and Fall of a Beloved Newspaper." The author (who published the book through an outfit called iUniverse Inc. in Lincoln, Nebraska) is Mike Raffaele, who served as editor of the Trentonian in two terms during the late 1990s and in the fall of 2001. For Raffaele, the excitement of the editor’s job apparently never included line editing stories or pondering matters of distance and point of view in narrative technique. For this editor, the excitement was in selling newspapers:
"Sex and the Trentonian go hand in hand. Mention the Trentonian, people immediately mention the page 6 girl. The Trentonian is the only paper in the country to feature models. It had a cult following. The readers loved the girls. Readers don’t want to admit it, but sex sells. . .
"For me this `discovery’ came in May, 1997, when the Trentonian led with `TEACH, TEEN HAD SEX IN SCHOOL.’ . . With soaring sales, we plowed on. There was a reader demand. I’m a whore when it comes to readers. Their wish is my demand."
That’s the mantra of "Tabloid From Hell." Don’t bore readers with stories they don’t care about. Don’t try to enlighten readers. Instead give readers what they want. And remember that the lowest and most common denominator of all is sex. Violence is just one notch above that.
If you want some insight into the editorial direction of the Trentonian, you can simply skim through Raffaele’s afterward, in which he lists his winning (as measured in newsstand sales) and losing front page headlines.
Among the winners: SEX IN THE MORTUARY. SEX KITTENS IN THE CLASSROOM (illustrated using a Trentonian reporter posing as a high school girl in a tight blouse and short dress, photographed from the neck down). MOM TURNS TRICKS AS TOTS BURN. MINISTER WANTED ME TO DRESS LIKE HOOKER. MICE DROPPINGS IN SAM’S CLUB EASTER CANDY (a special favor, according to the editor, for a business establishment that chose not to advertise in the Trentonian.) JAILHOUSE SEX KITTEN (a story about a 17-year-old girl, purported to be very attractive despite the fact that no one had a photo of her. Two years later she was photographed in a courtroom appearance — "she wasn’t that hot," laments Raffaele.)
Tough decisions in the newsroom make for exciting moments. Raffaele recalls the dilemma of one particularly busy news day: "What do you lead with: A sexy coed who dies of encephalitis during a trip to Tanzania or an arm with the name `Steve’ on it being found in a dumpster?" The solution: Run both on successive days: COED KILLED BY MOSQUITO and COPS SEEK REST OF `STEVE.’
Raffaele also rattles off some of the losing covers (many describing stories ordered by publisher David Bonfield, who — according to the editor — tried to make the Trentonian relevant to important people, not just regular Joes, and thereby contributed to the "fall of the beloved newspaper"). One loser: SAVE OUR KIDS. Raffaele’s analysis: "An education story about the floundering Trenton schools. Bonfield wanted to make education an issue. Issue stories in Trenton suck."
I could share more of the losers, but having read Raffaele’s book, I know better than to bore you. Instead I will draw on my new editorial insights and concoct a page one headline for this column. Let me tell you, this editing business can be pretty exciting.