I’ve been a fan of Dan Savage’s for some time now — he writes the only sex column worth reading, because he makes it dirty and fun, not earnest and sincere — but even if I wasn’t, the things he says about newspapers would make me one. In this Mediabistro Q-and-A, he discusses all things Savage, including his belief that “family newspaper” is an “albatross” that publishers have hung around their own necks.
I heartily agree, and not because I’m dying to get the f-word into the newspaper, either. As someone who had another f-word — “funk” — stricken from a fashion story back when I was a rookie (the editor thought it sounded too much like you-know-what), I’ve never understood the impulse to never offend, for any reason.
It can get utterly baroque at times. My former editor in Fort Wayne once took a call from a querulous old lady fretting over the phrase “and that’s the straight poop,” which had appeared in his column the week before. He was so impressed by her sensitivity he waved his royal scepter and instituted the infamous hell/damn rule, which led to those PG no-no words being represented by h— and d—, and any stronger than that having to be approved on a case-by-case basis. You can guess the fearless leadership that exists at the middle management level, and so our paper sometimes read like something out of the 1950s, only less interesting. The day an editor questioned the word “snot” in a column of mine (the dictionary notes it as “vulgar”), I knew it was time to get out. (I’m glad he didn’t dash it out, for obvious reasons.)
And he was really, really proud of that rule. He thought it was a victory for readers. For some, it was. I have no problem with the argument that not every word belongs in every publication, and the one that lands on your doorstep every day should be closer to a G rating than an R. I just think dashing the words out is stupid; does anyone look at h— and not think “hell”? Is any child over the age of 5 fooled by this? Take it all the way out, if you must, but dashes are like putting tape over the nipples of a stripper. Please.
I’d much rather work for someone with the common sense of Savage, who observed:
What did you think about the Doonesbury masturbation blowup? Where’d you stand on that? I assume something similar has happened to you.
Daily newspapers wonder why adults don’t read them. The “family newspaper” albatross that daily newspapers have hung around their necks is going to kill them. The newspaper is for adults, and any 11-year-old who’s reading Doonesbury is mature enough to see the word masturbation in that context and then not masturbate on a bus in front of a nun. And daily newspapers just can’t let that go. And that there are 90-year-old readers who are going to cancel their subscriptions is good. They dropped that Doonesbury in Seattle. They didn’t run that comment, about masturbation and prostate cancer. It wasn’t appropriate, they said; it’s in a comics page that a lot of people read with their children. Well, you know, maybe they should skip Doonesbury that week.
He touches on another theme — the 90-year-old reader. It’s true that newspaper readers, as a group, are aging rapidly. It’s also true that 90-year-olds are frequently more sensitive to words like “masturbation” than someone half that age. But the day you start editing for the most easily offended in your audience is the day your publication starts to die. Plus, guess what? Ninety-year-old readers are not the ones you build your future plans on.
P.S. There are exceptions. Carolyn, in Palm Beach, once told me her paper edits for the easily offended, too, a function of their elderly readership. All sexual activity, from a hand on a bottom to forcible rape, is “sex,” which makes it difficult to parse President Clinton’s thoughts on adultery with total candor. However, in Palm Beach, the unvarnished source material of daily life — presidential election recounts, Rush Limbaugh’s pill problems, bishops with an eye for the altar boys — makes their paper a must-read, I’m sure.