Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Costly Reading

By David G. Young

Washington DC, January 8, 2008 --  

Parade magazine's coverage of the Bhutto assassination highlights the poor health and obsolescence of American newspapers.

More than a week after the brutal assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the amazingly resilient politician appeared to stage a miraculous comeback. Despite video footage showing her being shot from a crowd surrounding her car, then blown up by shrapnel from a suicide bomber's blast, an apparently alive and resurrected Bhutto stared back at me from the front-page of a magazine insert in my Saturday, January 5 edition of the Washington Post.*

The cover story of Parade magazine, an article that describes Bhutto as "America's best hope against Al-Qaeda,'' made no mention of Bhutto's assassination many days prior. Was the assassination falsely staged? Was Bhutto's resurrection a Christmas miracle? Tragically, no. Boxed text on the front page the Sunday Washington Post explained the magazine cover. It said the issue went to Press on December 21, and the magazine didn't have time to fix the article.

It didn't have time? A full nine days passed between the time Bhutto was killed and when the magazine arrived on my doorstep. Even counting a holiday week, there is no good reason the cover couldn't have been reprinted with a disclaimer. If this were for some reason not possible, a sticker could have been placed on the cover updating readers about her assassination. And if not this solution, they could have decided to pull the magazine until they could run an updated article.

But Parade decided to do no such thing. It instead decided to do nothing. It ran a story outdated by more than a week to over 35 million1 households in order to save money. Parade magazine's actions are horribly insulting to Bhutto and to all of its readers.

Of course, Parade magazine is hardly a beacon of journalistic excellence. The magazine regularly includes such insipid fare as celebrity profiles, recipes, and mind-numbingly low-brow cartoons like "Howard Huge.'' It's the kind of publication that takes the old news journalism adage of writing for a 6th grade reader a little too far.

But it is precisely Parade's accessibility to the masses that makes this event so horrible. How many of the millions of people who read the article on Bhutto didn't know that she had been assassinated more than a week earlier? Misinforming readers in such a way is utterly irresponsible.

The fact that respectable newspapers such as the Washington Post failed to pull the magazine speaks poorly of the industry as a whole. Print newspapers continue to lose circulation, shed jobs and die at alarming rates. Over the same period between Bhutto's assassination and the delivery of the outdated article, the Chicago Sun-Times announced plans to lay off 35 employees2, and the Kentucky Post vanished after 126 years of publication.3

Given this context, Parade's blunder drives home the point that mass distribution of information as ink on cellulose is an antiquated relic of the industrial-era. Even Parade managed to quickly revise and republish the Bhutto article on its website, as doing so had zero cost compared with reprinting and distributing millions of paper issues.

To those of us who enjoy the tactile experience of feeling the morning paper in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, this is a sad development. The Parade incident has shown us that reading news on paper is not just costly due to printing and distribution expenses -- it is costly because readers risk being convinced that a major world leader, dead and buried for nine days, is "America's best hope against al-Qaeda.''

* Though nominally part of the Sunday paper, the Post distributed Parade magazine with its Saturday edition in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington on January 5, 2008.


1., Parade Bios: Management, as posted January 8, 2008

2. The Canadian Press, Chicago Sun-Times targeted for 35 layoffs to cut costs, January 5, 2008

3. Associated Press (via the Wall Street Journal), Cincinnati Newspaper Closes After 126 Years, January 2, 2008

Full disclosure: David G. Young holds shares in the Washington Post corporation.