Newspapers have a duty to inform and entertain. That’s one of the first things that journalism students are told — usually right after they’re taken aside, advised of the typical starting pay at newspapers, and asked if they’d like to change their major to business administration.
Typically, readers looking to be entertained have had to dig into the back pages for the comics and the horoscope. Or the humor columnist on the opinion page. Or the photo on Page B3 of the mayor wearing a funny hat.
But The Herald puts the silly stuff on the front page, with a twisted take on the news we call The Buzz.
For the past six years, The Buzz has been one of the most popular — and, for some folks, the least popular — features in the newspaper. The Buzz appears weekdays on Page A1 and on Saturday on Page A2. It takes Sundays off.
“The Buzz has become a signature element of The Herald’s front page,” said Neal Pattison, the newspaper’s executive editor. “It sets us apart from other newspapers. It gives readers something to look forward to each day.”
The Buzz was inspired in part by a decidedly unfunny newspaper mainstay: those stodgy “Today’s News” summaries parked in a bottom corner of Page One.
“As someone who has worked both as an editor and a design consultant, it struck me that these were pretty generic — and probably not very enticing,” Pattison said. “We wanted to accomplish the same goal: point out stories readers might enjoy inside the paper. But we wanted to do it in a way that was stimulating instead of boring.”
Inspiration came from Pattison’s students when he taught at a college before joining The Herald.
“I would start each semester by asking my students where they got their news,” Pattison recalled. “Time after time, the overwhelming answer was ‘The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.’
” ‘That’s not news!’ I would protest. Inevitably, they’d tell me, ‘No. He talks about REAL news stories. But he makes you laugh — and think.’ Understanding how Jon Stewart could get students interested in current events was a breakthrough for me.”
The Buzz consists of short blurbs about at least three stories inside the newspaper that might interest readers. “It was inspired in part by blogs, with the idea that The Buzz is a blog about that day’s paper,” said Doug Parry, who helped conceive the column when he was the newspaper’s lead Page One design editor. “We wanted it to have a snarky tone, without getting into anything political or mean-spirited — which sometimes means we’re toeing a fine line.”
That fine line is managed by The Buzz’ authors, assistant news editor Jon Bauer and news editor Mark Carlson.
Carlson says the column generally steers clear of anything that smacks of overt partisan politics. For reasons of taste and sensitivity, mayhem, tragedy and death are off-limits — with a few notable exceptions.
“Dictators who treat their subjects savagely are fair game when they finally get around to croaking,” Carlson said. “We were goofing on Kim Jong-il the day after the Dear Leader’s demise. You can call it the Generalissimo Francisco Franco is Still Dead rule.”
When there are no despots’ deaths to celebrate, Carlson and Bauer look for articles about surveys and polls, science and technology, and, of course, gaffes and misadventures by celebrities and politicians. All provide reliable fodder for The Buzz.
Newsroom banter, at least the part that’s printable in a family newspaper, also can find its way into The Buzz, Bauer said.
“The morning news meeting actually is a good place to try out material,” he said. “As we discuss stories for the next day’s paper, I’ll make a crack and see if anyone else responds.”
Carlson noted that if Bauer laughs the loudest at his wisecracks, it’s a pretty good bet that whatever he said will wind up in the next day’s Buzz.
“My test for The Buzz is to write something that amuses myself,” he said. “Humor is a matter of personal taste and not everyone is going to find what I write amusing, so I try to write something that works for me and hope others like it too. But sometimes I just have to stare at the screen until my inner smart aleck comes up with a Donald Trump joke.”
Jokes about Trump and the woodland creature that lives on his head may be easy pickings, but Bauer and Carlson have a daunting job, Pattison said.
“Humor can’t “sorta” work,” he said. “Either it is funny or it bombs.”
Pattison says he gets more reader feedback on The Buzz than anything else in the newspaper.
“People either love it or hate it — and the pro comments outnumber the anti comments by a wide margin.”