To readers who shun The Wall Street Journal for political reasons, let me point out that you are missing some of the best arts writing in any American newspaper and, of course, the finest journalism devoted to any subject. I have small interest in politics and none at all in business and finance, but it’s in the Journal that I first encountered the pre-blogging Terry Teachout, writing from a musician’s inside perspective, without artistic or racial blinkers, about jazz.
Any notions you may have of the Journal’s reputed stodginess will be dispelled by a look at its recently added Saturday/Sunday edition. See page P18 of this past weekend’s edition for a typically quirky and readable juxtaposition of stories. On the upper left is a piece by a scholar of French literature, Mary Ann Caws, about Proust and his masterpiece. No new ground is broken here, but Caws’ enthusiasm for one of literature’s supreme sources of pleasure is contagious. Next to it is a CD Roundup by Jesse Drucker, five brief reviews of recent releases of vintage recordings made at the famed studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala. In Drucker’s words, these CDs represent the work of “virtuoso musicians, largely country-reared white boys who played the meanest soul.”
This single page – and I didn’t mention a third story, about the Tour de France, because I didn’t read it – illustrates why I have always considered newspapers a species of collage, though less visually haunting than, say, Max Ernst’s. Over-familiarity blinds us to the true, jarring, unlikely weirdness of newspapers. Wildly disparate material – sports scores, horoscopes, classifieds, stock listings, brassiere ads, news of gangland killings and Brad and Jen – are blithely packaged in a single container. I suspect their ragbag quality was even more apparent in the days before zoned editions and the practice of heavily demarcating newspapers, like Berlin, into sections. But the recent appearance of relative homogeneity is deceptive. Working in journalism for almost 27 years, with most of that time spent in daily newsrooms, has left me with the conviction that newspapers, despite the hubris of editors and reporters, are anything but monolithic models of efficiency. Even the most highly organized newspaper usually works by the seat of its unpressed pants. Contingency is everything, from hung-over reporters to computers crashes and the rising cost of newsprint. Newspapers are at their best when anarchy tempers humorless rectitude.
Newspaper boosters (publishers, promotion managers) like to say their industry is the only one that turns out an entirely new product daily. This is both true and misleading. Every newspaper story is written according to formula or in reaction to formula. Some stories are formulaic by their nature but also for reasons of taste. No one wants to read a “gonzo,” first-person account of children dying in a house fire. The best stories often turn formula inside-out, though that, too, can quickly turn formulaic.
I once worked with an editor who, like Beckett’s Watt, “had never smiled, but thought that he knew how it was done.” His wit was dehydrated. He once said that if he paid $1 for a newspaper and he read one story in it that amused him or educated him or inspired a flash of righteous anger, he got his money’s worth. By his standards, that was boosterism, but how often have you read the paper and remembered nothing 10 minutes later?