I’ve been doing some research that led me into the Toronto Star online archives of the mid-1950s.
It wasn’t any golden age of journalism.
But boy, they knew how to grab readers.
The headline at the top of the post was from the Star’s line story on June 25, 1955. It was screaming, two-deck head across the top of the page, and the story delivered. After a company golf party, the boss - drunk - insisted on driving home. He crashed and died, and other staff following in their cars piled into each other in the confusion. Three people were charged with impaired driving.
The other headlines were just as catchy, in the truncated style of the day.
“Officer shoots self, give Vancouver chief leave in police probe.”
“Pollution, epidemic feared if strike at Kitchener continues.”
“Peron’s police cheer as young Catholics die defending churches.”
“Gored by bull, Burks Falls farmer dies.”
“Thought help cries game, girls let chum drown.”
“Mystery germ hits Alberta, halts operations.” (Antibiotic-resistant staph infections were already a problem in hospitals.)
And my favorite, “Swimming wolf fights to death with fishermen.” (In fact, the fishermen were in a boat and clubbed the wolf with a paddle, hit it with an anchor, dragged it to shore and, when the animal still wasn’t dead, cut its throat.)
The main art was two photos under the headline “Canadian Girls Win Acclaim for Golf and Posture.”
All in, there were 16 stories and two fairly large illustrations.
I checked the Star’s current front page the same day I looked at the 1955 paper.
It had four stories. (There are also teasers for inside basketball coverage and coverage of the latest popes to be deemed saints.)
The line story head was “Condo failed to deliver on sales pitch, owners claim.” The other heads were “Under this immigration law, anyone can be a terrorist,” “Special needs kids told to stay home” and “Ukraine crisis: Insurgents in east hold dozens hostage.”
They are all OK stories. But put them up against the 1955 page, and they seem, well, dull. And instead of a groaning smorgasbord, readers get a limited set menu.
In fairness, the page today is about 40 per cent smaller. Newspapers have been steadily making the page shorter and narrower to reduce newsprint costs. (And for reader convenience, of course, though mostly to save money.)
But still, even with the reduced page size, the editors in 1955 would have presented eight or nine stories.
A few thoughts leap out.
First, the people who go on about the great quality journalism in the old days - a decade ago, 40 years ago, a hundred years ago - haven’t actually read the old papers. Then, as now, there was some fine work, a lot of average work and some hackery.
Second, the papers were a heck of a lot more entertaining and interesting. A story about a killer wolf isn’t great journalism. But it is the kind of item that people will talk about at work, which means that if you don’t read the paper, you’re left out of the conversation.
And third, the 1950s approach seems well-suited to the digital age - generate a lot of different items, package them and troll for readers. A print version of BuzzFeed.
So why did newspapers move away from a formula that worked? Partly, we decided people were getting the headlines and quick hits of a 16-story front page from radio and TV. (This was pre-Internet, though radio had certainly been around for a long time.) The theory was that we would offer more depth to retain readers.
But that also aligned nicely with the work a new generation of university-educated journalists said they wanted to do - in-depth stories about big issues. That’s important, but it doesn’t serve much purpose if people aren’t reading the pieces.
It would be harder to take the same approach now. You would need lots of keen reporters to chase down the story of the drunken office golf outing gone wrong, and police sources willing to talk. Newspapers can’t afford the reporters, and police would refer you to a communications staffer who would confirm a crash was under investigation and little more.
And the fishermen would likely have grabbed a video of their heroic efforts to kill the wolf, posted it and it would have reached two million views on various platforms and aggregators within 12 hours.
Still, the old Star page is a reminder that in the discussions about newspaper readership (print and online), we should be considering the possibility that some people aren’t reading because we’re not interesting enough.