Sunday, November 19, 2006

How good is 'good enough'?

"I have the wrong ballot," a woman told the election judge on election day. "Not all the candidates are here. Where's Tammy Duckworth?"

Duckworth was in DuPage County, but the voter was in my precinct polling place at the Happy Village Tavern — an election in a bar, only in Chicago! Henry Hyde hasn't represented me since I lived in the suburbs. Whatever the stakes, his replacement wasn't our decision.

This voter was a victim of Good Enough Media.

After weeks of 30-second duels between Duckworth and Peter Roskam on Chicago TV, it seemed as if Duckworth should have been on the ballot statewide, the undercard to Rob Blagojevich Had Enough vs. Judy Baar Topinka What's She Thinking.

With Capitol Hill power in the balance, even this dramatic a campaign didn't hold TV's attention beyond C-SPAN. Duckworth's Iraq service was about where most reporting stopped. WLS truth-squaded a Duckworth ad that pitted Roskam against Dr. Seuss, but devoted so little time to it that to make sense of it all I had to Google Roskam and Seuss during the next commercial break.

At least the gubernatorial race rated a 10 p.m. Special Segment two days in a row.

Journalists plotting their future course have been reading the industry study Newspaper Next. It observes that innovations catch on not because they're perfect, but they're good enough and cheap enough to be really useful. The Internet news audience isn't growing because of media convergence or bottomless newshole. It's growing because Web headlines are a quick read.

Newspapers have rediscovered the quick read. The Chicago Tribune launched RedEye as a free youth newspaper and found a ready audience among commuters of all ages. Now its circulation beats some suburban dailies, and readers who struggled in junior-high Spanish are reading the retooled free Hoy.

But in the polling place, quick reads are no more instructive than TV news. RedEye's election day cover was on Jimmy Jellinek, a Handsome Man who publishes Maxim. There was an election refer ("The issues, the comedy and why you should wash your hands, Page 10"). But for help on the judicial retention ballot, it was get off the el, get on the Internet.

Celebrity news for strap-hangers may prove lucrative, but won't go far to distinguish newspapers in an age where "tabloid" no longer refers to a newspaper format. And what happens to more civic-minded journalism? Sure, politics might make for a decent niche market. But on Election Day, will that be good enough?