Right-click here to download pictures. Jane Straus

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Go Trendy, Stay Alive

Americans used to love their newspapers and magazines. Now a whole generation regards them as quaint curiosities.

Here’s a day in the life of a late-twentieth-century big-city newspaper: “The newsroom was packed with reporters keeping very close watch on every institution in town. They had two reporters covering city hall, three reporters covering the police building, and even a reporter covering the local ballet on a full-time basis.” Those days are over. With readers and advertisers fleeing, newspapers and news magazines have had to slash staff ruthlessly to survive.

The charm of newspapers is that they strive to be all things to all people. A news junkie can keep up on local, national, and international developments. Culture lovers can read reviews of the latest book, movie, or play. An entrepreneur combs the business section while his kids scan the comics or the sports page or Dear Abby.

Today the challenge is attracting as many younger readers as possible without alienating the 50-and-over crowd who grew up with the dailies.

Although it’s still doing all right in some places, print journalism is in deep trouble. In the last few years, with once great and powerful papers going under or facing bankruptcy, I’ve noticed that writers are scrambling to update their prose and shun stuffiness. Old-fashioned decorum and strict adherence to grammar have been elbowed aside for a new strategy: engage the reader with streetwise affability. Twenty-five years ago a sentence might begin, “If I were he …” Nowadays we’re far more likely to see “If I was him …”

This makes the grammar patrol apoplectic, but in these turbulent times newspaper editors feel that pristine grammar is unrealistic and even counterproductive. The average American has a negative visceral response to anything that sounds too formal or professorial.

When I read my daily paper I witness how many battles have been lost. I see things like “When the water is high, like it is now” or “If you grew up on the shores of Lake Erie like I did” and I remember that like used to be unacceptable in those instances—copy editors would have insisted on as instead.

And a while is about to become awhile, even though they’re different, and the difference is worth preserving. But newspapers more and more are going with it’s been awhile, as if a while is too creaky.

These distinctions, which English lovers cherish, get short shrift now from newspapers that are fighting for their lives.

Forgoing formality and writing in the vernacular have another downside: fad words. I recently read “Companies should incent their employees …” and wondered if I’d ever seen a dumber, uglier, more unnecessary word than incent, a term now in vogue. Utter jargon—but, hey, it’s up-to-the-minute jargon.

Same with the misguided use of the word fun: “a fun, sometimes moving celebration,” “I don’t care how fun it is,” “a diabolically fun internal debate.” Those make me want to scream. Can’t anyone hear how lame they are? Sometimes, trying to sound like “the people” makes a journalist sound like an eight-year-old.

Now isn’t the time to look to your daily paper for language guidance. That’s the least of its worries.

Tom Stern

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Thanks to cartoonist Dan Piraro.

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