James Gill: Newspaper war heating up

You, gentle reader, must be glad to find yourself in the middle of a newspaper war. The benefits of competition are a distant memory in just about every other market.

Spare a thought, however, for the harried scribe who goes in constant fear of being scooped. When that happens, you can be sure the other paper will really rub it in.

So it was the other day. My mouth went dry when I got on the Times-Picayune’s website and saw the headline on the top story. It read, “Frying pan fire causes moderate damage to kitchen in Slidell home,” and I hadn’t even heard about it. My sources really let me down on this one.

In these dog-eat-dog times the possibility of sensationalism can never be dismissed, so I read on. But the tantalizing headline was more than borne out. The effects of the flaming frying pan even extended beyond the kitchen; “light smoke damage” was also reported in the rest of the house. Readers who were eager to know the size of the house weren’t let down either. It measures 2,300 square feet.

Credit where credit is due. You will never read a more thorough account of a frying pan fire than this, especially one that left nobody injured. No wonder it was played so prominently. It is embarrassing to be beaten to the punch, of course, but rest assured this will spur us to greater efforts from now on.

Do not be shocked to read snide remarks. They figured prominently in the newspaper wars of old and kept the competitive juices flowing.

In the 19th century, when several dailies were published in New Orleans, editors would not only insult each other in print, but exchange blows on the street. Two of them fought a duel at Metairie Ridge in 1880, but they couldn’t shoot straight and did less harm than a Slidell frying pan fire of today.

The English tabloids have been especially forthright in maligning their rivals — the Daily Mirror some years ago wrote that the Sun had descended “from the gutter to the sewer” — and our newspaper war is bound to seem genteel by comparison. But it would be remiss to neglect an opportunity to mock when standards slip.

And they certainly have when a newspaper that used to be in the Pulitzer class awards pride of place on its website to a frying pan. But this looks less like poor editorial judgment than no editorial judgment at all. The website is not laid out like a newspaper page, but more closely resembles a kaleidoscope. The production line rolls out stories higgledy-piggledy in “real time.” The logic that governs the traditional newspaper format does not apply and a real turkey can wind up in the top spot.

Sporting readers will then make bets on how long it will take for the absurdity to sink in and the turkey to be removed. That bet would have taken a lot of winning this time. Although it did drop gradually down the page, the kitchen drama was still there a full day later. You could hear guffaws from New Orleans to Baton Rouge.

You might think this is playing into the Advocate’s hands after the Picayune managed to squander 175 years’ worth of goodwill in a few months by thumbing its nose at readers who did not find an incoherent website much consolation for a reduced print schedule. But competition needs to be stiffer than this if journalism is to flourish hereabouts. The public should not be fobbed off with a phony newspaper war.

We haven’t reached the phony stage, and the other newspaper has superior numbers on its side. It is, after all, still a shock when it publishes a story that a weekly in the sticks might disdain. Perhaps the story would not be rejected there, though. No fewer than 17 firefighters turned out, and that could make news in a quiet settlement on a slow day. We can learn from the story too. Kindly take note that leaving a pan of oil unattended on the stove is not recommended.

Meanwhile, with two newspapers, you can jump out of the frying pan into the fire whenever you want.