Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Writing Exercise: Riff on a Rag

After a two week hiatus, I was back at writing group two weeks ago. The exercise was to read a news site, newspaper or supermarket tabloid, find an interesting article, and use it as the basis for a scene or a story.

Since we meet in a library, the exercise leader grabbed a couple of news papers and magazines for us to use (alas, the library does not have supermarket tabloids!). I happened to pick the last print issue of Newsweek magazine from the pile. One of the articles was about the magazine's competition with Time magazine. In October of 1975, they both came out in the same week with a cover story on the new, hot rock 'n' roller, Bruce Springsteen. The Newsweek editor said that he still runs into people who tell him that Newsweek and Time are basically the same magazine and cite the Springsteen cover article as evidence. The worst part, according to the editor, is when Oprah Winfrey's publicist called and asked if he could arrange for her to appear on the cover of both magazines since she was in a movie about to be released. The publicist said they could do the covers in the same style as the Springsteen covers. He, the editor, wished that he could just hang up on the publicist.

Anyway, that was the article that inspired this story:

"We work hard to distinguish ourselves around here!" the managing editor declared unequivocally. The staff, all the staff, were in the big conference room on the fourth floor. The meeting was an "all hands on deck" emergency gathering to discuss the latest crisis for the magazine.

"We are the most respected, most trusted, most up to date, most relevant news magazine on the stands today. We are a recognized name. We are the standard bearers of journalistic integrity and intelligence. We need to maintain that reputation, to make it even greater. Not let it slip through our fingers!"

Everyone in the room squirmed in their chairs. Didn't the old man know what was really going on? Wasn't he aware of all the fierce competition for stories that would sell magazines? Couldn't he see where that would lead?

"It's not even slipping through our fingers! Someone is snatching it away from us! We need to fix this! Find out where we are slipping and get a grip! Thompson, what are your thoughts on this debacle?"

Thompson was the wrong person to ask about this. Mostly because he was responsible but couldn't admit it in such a venue.

"Well, the similarities are striking but not too much to warrant so much worry," Thompson began. But really it was inexcusable. The two main news magazines having the same cover article on the new trend in music embodied by the latest pop icon. Sure there was a lot of research and analysis of trends and shifting tastes among the public. Surely, that both articles came to the same conclusion shouldn't be a surprise. Both magazines had the same cover images with barely distinguishable headlines. All that could be explained by appealing to a sense of truth, of keen insight into the American Culture.

The real problem was more substantial and less admittable in such a public forum, even within the enclaves of magazine's workers. The thing Thompson couldn't admit was that the whole thing was a publicity stunt set up with the other magazine. Times were changing and the old man isn't going to be around much longer, Thompson rationalized to himself. The coup was inevitable. A few of the other editors were in on it. The younger workers would understand and be excited. Maybe it was time for a public confession. Or a public admission, not so much of guilt but of genius. A public declaration of a new path, new ideals, a new day at the magazine.

What Thompson didn't realize was how few who worked on the article were in on the stunt and how they would react. Who shared what idealism was a lot more spread around than Thompson assumed. The twilight of the old day hadn't happened yet; the twilight of Thompson's career was visible on the horizon to those "in the know" and would become visible to everyone else soon enough. But last of all to Thompson.

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