I really have to wonder whether South Africa's editors really are a humourless lot or whether the lighter side of life just isn't on their radar screens?
What started me thinking about the issue of humour in the media was the new-look Finweek
that landed in my post box [what, do these things still exist? - managing ed
] a few weeks ago. Yes, it was all good 'n clean and fresh and had everything in it that conscientious captains, officers and crews of industry would want in a weekly business publication.
But, my wife was extremely upset to see that the back-page "Piker" funnies feature has been replaced by an austere crossword puzzle.
Yet my intention is not to pick on Finweek
, but rather to bemoan the fact that our news media, particularly print, just cannot seem to bring themselves to believe that readers would like to smile occasionally.
Let me hasten to say, however, that I don't blame editors at all for keeping away from humour because editors are generally obliged to take very careful note of what readership research is telling them.
And what readership research is telling them is that, in terms of business-to-business media, for example, what readers want to the exclusion of all else is serious business stuff without any form of frivolity.
Trouble is, as far as I am concerned, a lot of readership research is absolute crap.
Here lies the problem
Especially that sort of readership research that asks readers what they like reading. And this is where the problem lies.
It is completely contrary to human nature for any self-respecting businessman, woman or entrepreneur to sit in front of a researcher or fill in an online survey and answer the question about what the most important thing they read and say, "Oh, without doubt, I like the jokes at the back and then the cartoons and then if there is anything about who is bonking whom..."
Of course not. What they will say is, "I first look at share prices, then the leader page editorial and then global economic analyses..."
In precisely the same way that if you ask any human being what wine they like most, they will unhesitatingly respond by mentioning the most expensive brand they have ever heard of and not consider for a moment telling the truth about their economically induced preference for cheap plonk.
I have seen a lot of misguided readership research in my day.
The very first experience I had of it was way back in the 1960s when the then The Natal Mercury
(now The Mercury
) did some research on what readers really wanted. As usual, the analysis came back showing quite clearly that readers wanted politics, opinion and analysis, business news and then sport.
About a year later, the editor of the Mercury
decided to move the paper's extremely humorous Idler's Column from the back page to the centre of the paper, to fall in line with most other newspapers by putting sport at the back.
switchboard was jammed for three days solid with readers absolutely incensed about the change. Bear in mind, they were not complaining that the column had been dropped but just that it had just been moved.
What was subsequently proved was that something like 70% of Mercury
readers actually rated the Idler's Column as the primary reason for buying the newspaper in the first place, even if they wouldn't admit this in formal research.
I am not suggesting for a minute that all readership research has massive margins of error, but what I am saying is that news media management and editors need to be very careful about what a lot of readership research is perceived to suggest.
I am convinced that consumers of news media would enjoy a laugh or two every now and then.