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Jan. 21, 2009

I had a dream a while back, and thought of sharing it here, but hell, people think I'm nuts enough without me spilling my subconscious all over these pixels. On the other hand, to quote John Lennon, "it can't get no worse," so. . .
          In the dream, I was editor of a new Los Angeles newspaper. In a sane world, I actually would be editor of a new Los Angeles newspaper, but as we know, the world is all gummed up with demographics, political correctness, tattoos, hiring based on race and gender, legalized corporate theft, homogenized thinking, the tyranny of cool, Oprah, and Sam Zell. Oh yeah, and stupidity. Lots and lots of stupidity. Oodles.
          I forget the name of the paper in the dream, so let's call it the L.A. Hot Press. It was a smash-hit. Yes, that's right, a newspaper---one of those anachronistic folding thingys getting shorter and thinner by the day---was a smash-hit, here in smashed-up L.A., in the 21st century. A stark-raving-mad success, no less. I think there were even newsboys hawking it on streetcorners. But that's not the weirdest part of the dream. The weirdest part is that after I woke up, it all kind of made sense.
          Told you. Nutty as a fruitcake. But. . .
          Here's how the L.A. Hot Press did it. First of all, no web. Right, zero presence on computers. Google until you are goo-goo-eyed, you couldn't find it on a Mac or PC. Now, there aren't many things in the universe that don't show up on a Google search. I mean, I just typed in "goose idiots" and "dead marbles," and got hits for both of 'em. Also "monkey tarts" (!). But the L.A. Hot Press was not there. To quote Zappa, Great Google-y Moogly! What did you used to call this phenomenon. . .
          Oh yeah. Exclusivity!
          And isn't the first rule of business to never give away something for nothing? As W.C. Fields said, "Never give a sucker an even break, and never smarten up a chump." Well it seems that newspapers are widely run by chumps who were giving suckers a better than even break, by giving away their product for a mouse click. In the dream, that is. No, I mean in real life. Well, both. That's what's happening, after all. Newspapers are free, so why plunk quarters into newsracks? Why subscribe?
Teach reporters how to write sharply, clearly---you know, just show them The Times and say, "Don't do this."

          The L.A. Hot Press, though, was on fire. Everyone was reading the thing. It's slogan said it all: The newspaper you'll never find in the bottom of a bird cage---because the bird will be reading it! What's more, tons of people were bringing their suits to the paper's downtown L.A. HQ for free tailoring. Really. Their suits. And when their cars broke down, the first place they thought of was the Hot Press. The Hot Press Garage was reputed to be honest and efficient from Hawthorne to Hacienda Heights. Cheap, too. Why, the paper was thinking of adding free cosmetic surgery with the first 100 subscriptions of the day, and the daily Bingo game had Skid Row lining up at the door every morning for the latest numbers. There was a pledge drive on KCET, with a date with William Shatner as the free gift, and a Hot Press Coffee Shop in the main lobby. People hung out there.
          That was the goofy part of the dream, although the more I thought about it, the more I decided that there was an underlying idea that was really not so goofy: make yourself needed. Make yourself a trusted, reliable, necessary part of the community. This, the Hot Press accomplished, and aside from free cosmetic surgery (maybe not such a bad idea!) and suit alterations, here's how:
          First, the paper set up what used to be called an Action Line column---this being the "consumer complaint" service that was once common before the corporations that these columns investigated. . .bought all the papers. Back in the '70's, for instance, the old Valley News in Van Nuys had a superb Action Line that was fully backed up by editor and publisher, even at the risk of losing advertising (gasp), which happened on more than one occasion. If you'd been ripped off in a car purchase, or needed to have your goiter removed, or had purchased rat poison that the rats happily gobbled up with no ill effects, you. . .called the Valley News Action Line. And got satisfaction, nine times in ten. For free.
          Ditto at the L.A. Hot Press---but in this case, there was a staff of 30 or 40 reporters investigating citizen complaints (as opposed to the staff of three at the Valley News.) Hmm. . .After I woke up (I think), it occurred to me that this wasn't a bad concept. Not bad at all. Got a problem? Can't afford a lawyer? City Hall stomping on your gonads? Pet store sold you a defective cat? Call the Hot Press Action Line. Fighting for you. Why would it work? Same reason these things always worked: fear of bad reputation on the part of companies/persons being investigated, after the results are printed in the paper. Put a staff of 30 on it (not too many when you consider that the shipwrecked Times still has close to 600 people in its editorial staff), and that's serious clout. Lawsuits? Wear 'em like a badge.
          And so dream-L.A. came to think of the Hot Press as this unique entity that happened to be a newspaper---a unique entity that you couldn't find on the web, and that fought for you, and that. . .okay, would tailor and press your suits and fix your car.          
          But there was another aspect that might as well have been dream-like, when you consider the pretentious, huffy, long-winded, haphazard, gollygosh PC ways that the L.A. Times has so often covered this so-called city. The Hot Press did not---repeat, did not---pander to different socio-ethnic enclaves of L.A.. It did not obsequiously cover the "latino community," or the "black community," or the "predominantly white west side" (not in my neighborhood) etc. It did not carve L.A. into tiny ethnic city-states. Never mind that this is what L.A. has largely become. The Hot Press covered the city as if it was one place, and all its citizen just Angelenos.
          As. . .it. . .should. . .be.
         (If you build it, they will come. Treat the place like a community, and maybe it will one day start acting like one.)
Make the paper the first place people think of when they need help. What the hell, give away free eye-jobs to every tenth new subscriber on a given day.

          Plus, the HP covered dream-L.A. with wit, irreverence, suspicion of authority, and a flagrant policy of tenaciously advocating on behalf of the underdog. Oh, sure, the reporting was "balanced," as the silly and impossible notion goes, but it was "balanced" toward blatantly erring on the side of the downtrodden, the screwed-over, the bled-dry, the evicted, the bureaucratically beleaguered, the hapless, hopeless, and un-hip.
          As. . .it. . .should. . .be.
          The HP, not incidentally, also covered city hall in plain, challenging English. How much do those street-cleaners that never clean streets (they only blow debris around) pollute with their diesel exhaust? How much do they cost the city? What the hell is the mayor doing today? Why does the city council grease the way for metastacizing development that is making L.A. unlivable? Etc.
          And yes, I was the editor of this dream-rag, with help from a couple of old cronies. The whole thing, not surprisingly, was housed in the old Herald-Examiner building at 11th and Broadway, where I did---er, spent---five years. (Haunted? Me?) 
          As I said, on the morning after the dream, I was convinced that I was on to something. Take a newspaper, get it off the web, and make it exclusively available in paper form. Sure, circulation will plunge. But it's plunging, anyhow. (Expect, for the hell of it, to lose a third to one-half.) Give the reporting and editorials wit, punch, and a strong reputation for advocating for Joe the. . .Reader. Teach reporters how to write sharply, clearly---you know, just show them The Times and say, "Don't do this." No two-inch ledes. No "nut grafs." (Easily the funniest, most pretentious invention in modern journalism history.) Add a gigantic consumer complaint section. Hell, if bloggers write for free, some of them might not mind working for not-much, especially when it would mean helping others. (Right?) Establish a strong community identity. Make the paper the first place people think of when they need help. What the hell, give away free eye-jobs to every tenth new subscriber on a given day. Or suit alterations. Or tires. Or dates with William Shatner. Whatever. Why the hell not get newsboys to hawk the thing? People would love it. And yeah, put in a damn coffee shop on the first floor, and make the paper a kind of cultural city center iconographic place to hang out. . .
          Oh, and put in the old Her-Ex building for real. That's as L.A. as you can get, and that part of downtown is being (over)developed like crazy.
          See? Told you I was nuts. This is what I get for falling asleep on the couch to "Citizen Kane" on Turner Classics.
          And yet, a couple weeks after the dream, I happened across an article in the New York Times about a newspaper in New Jersey that shuns the web.
          And is thriving.
          Editor available. Wanted: billionaire publisher.
  2009 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.

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2002 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.