Thursday, May 1, 2014

FINALLY: Jeff Bezos has announced his plans for remaking the Washington Post. The answer? Many more photos; greatly improved graphics, including far more charts, graphs, images, drawings, etc.; a greatly improved Web site to make navigation easier and access to items faster; a Sunday Magazine that is much bigger in format; and a new Sunday Style & Arts section. Look to see many more reporters and bloggers hired, too. The news and editorial direction of the paper are not, however, clear.

Know what this sounds like?

Tabloid journalism of the 1930s.

Go read Amanda Smith's Newspaper Titan: The Infamous Life and Monumental Times of Cissy Patterson. It's about the life of Cissy Patterson, grand-daughter of the man who founded the Chicago Tribune. Insanely wealthy, good looking, vain, and cruel, her grandfather refused to give his shares in the Chicago paper to his children. Instead, he gave them to his grand-children, with the stipulation that they exercise no control over the paper whatsoever. Cissy married a poverty-stricken Russian count who turned out to be a wife-beater when he learned Cissy's folks had no intention of paying off his massive gambling debts. He kidnapped their child when Cissy left him, and she spent two years trying to get her back. Once she did, she essentially abandoned her daughter. Cissy was no dummy, and she desperately wanted something to do. So she became a reporter for William Randolph Hearst's Washington Times-Herald.

Cissy's vibrant writing style, her insights into Republican politics, and her reporting on her own tomboyish explots (like big game hunting in Wyoming) won her a wide following. At the time, the District of Columbia had nine newspapers, and none of them made money. Cissy tried to buy the Times-Herald from Hearst, but he declined. When Hearst ran into financial trouble, Cissy bought into the paper when Hearst again declined to sell it outright. He did allow her to be editor, however, in exchange for her investment.

Cissy Patterson ruled D.C.'s newspaper market in the 1930s and 1940s. She put her daily editorial smack on the front page, and pulled no punches -- issuing witty, scathingly sarcastic, and punishing diatribes against whomever or whatever she hated. She flooded the paper with "women's stories", articles on fashion, gossip, film, horse-riding, pets, homemaking, cooking, food, wine, and more. She hired hundreds of photographers, and splashed their dynamic images all over the paper. She ran endless contests to boost circulation. If one society gossip column was good, then ten would be better. And she demanded that advertising be as giddy and exhibitionist as her own newspaper. Within four years, Cissy Patterson's Washington Times-Herald had gone from a distant seventh to first. And by 1940, her newspaper was turning a profit. Big profits. Smashing profits.

If you know anything about Cissy Patterson's Washington Times-Herald, then you know where Bezos is headed.

D.C. hasn't had a tabloid newspaper since the Times-Herald folded in 1954. (Cissy died in 1948, leaving her newspaper to the six editors who ran it. Her daughter, Felicia, sued to overturn the will. An out-of-court settlement was reached in which the editors agreed to pay Felicia a huge sum of money, and sell the paper in order to raise it. It was sold to the Washington Post, which buried it.) The D.C. Examiner is tabloid, but the free, half-pint-sized newpaper isn't large enough to qualify as a real tabloid. For a better example, look to the New York Daily News or New York Sun for a real tabloid.

Bezos might not want to be as lurid or sensationalistic as those two, but he's headed largely in that direction in all other respects, it seems. We'll have to wait and see what he does with all those reporters and bloggers.

Remember, newspapers live and die on these two things: Increasing the number of advertisers, and increasing the amount of space devoted to advertisers.

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