First, a complaint that’s unrelated to the subject: For some time, I’ve been meaning to write something about the sudden death of the newspaper headline. I’m still going to write it, but I’ll just touch on it here.
Back when there were real newspapers everywhere, journalists had an important ethic — to tell their readers everything they needed (or might want) to know about the subject at hand as quickly as possible. Do it in the headline if possible. Then, if you couldn’t do it in the hed, you did it in the lede. People should be able to read nothing but the hed and the lede and move on, and know the most important facts about what the story was about. If the story was a tad too complicated for that, certainly you finished telling the basics in the next couple of grafs — then, assuming you were writing in the classic inverted-pyramid form, the importance of the information you related diminished with each paragraph.
You did this for two reasons. First, those rabid lunatics on the copy desk (no offense to copy editors; I’m just describing them the way a reporter would) were likely to end your story randomly wherever they felt like ending it, in order to cram it into inadequate space, so you needed to get the best stuff up top. Second, you saw it as your sacred duty to inform the busy reader as well as you could. A reader who didn’t have the time to sit down and read the stories should be able to glance over the headlines on the front page and at least have a rough, overall idea of the important news of the day. A reader with a little more time should be able to get a somewhat deeper understanding just by reading the front, without having to follow the stories to the jump pages. And so forth.
But no more. Now, the point is to get readers to click on the story. So you get “headlines” that say things like, and I am not making this up, “What you need to know about X.” When there was room in the headline to just tell you what you needed to know. Or they make it clear that the story is about a particular person, but don’t name the person. The idea being that if you aren’t willing to click, then you can just take a flying leap. (There’s another, even more absurd, reason why the person is often not named, but I’ll get into that another time.)
Different ethic — if you want to call it that.
But you see what I just did? I wrote 414 words without getting to the point of this post. See what writing for an online audience, without the discipline enforced by the limited space of a dead-tree newspaper, can do to you?
I went on that tangent, though, because I was irritated by a story headlined, “What Types of Exercise Reduce Dementia Risk?” That grabbed me on account of knowing someone — a good friend, you see — who will soon be 69. And he might care to know. But did the story tell me? No. At least, not in the first 666 words. After that, it finally gave me a subhed that said, “Start by doing what you like best.”
Which meant we were getting somewhere, but not exactly. Still, I forgive this writer and her editors, because she had an excuse: She doesn’t know the answer. Nobody knows the answer. At least not an answer that would satisfy me — or rather, my friend.
So, in a way, my long digression about bad headlines was even less relevant than it seemed. Oh, well. At least I got some of that out of my system. But I’ll return to the subject in another post, with examples.
Back to the exercise thing — while there are no answers, there are… indications, such as those from three recently-published “major long-term studies” that “confirm that regular physical activity, in many forms, plays a substantial role in decreasing the risk of developing dementia,” and further tell us that “Vigorous exercise seems to be best, but even non-traditional exercise, such as doing household chores, can offer a significant benefit.”
That’s good. But I went into this hoping — that is, my friend went into it hoping — that the stories would endorse the Wally Schirra approach.
Did you read The Right Stuff? Well, you should have, and if you haven’t, go read it right now, and return to this point in the post when you’re done…
Did you enjoy it? It’s awesome, isn’t it? Well, I always liked the part where Wolfe is telling about how the people in charge of the Mercury program encouraged our nation’s first seven astronauts to engage in frequent exercise. And John Glenn, demonstrating what a Harry Hairshirt he was, would go out and run laps around the parking lot of the BOQ. But most of the guys agreed with Wally Schirra “who felt that any form of exercise that wasn’t fun, such as waterskiing or handball, was bad for your nervous system:”
Nothing against John Glenn. He’s a hero of mine, as for most Americans alive in that time. I was really disappointed that he didn’t do better in his bid for the presidency in 1984. I was definitely ready to vote for him.
But I like Wally’s approach to exercise. And while the data may not all be in on precisely the best exercise for keeping one’s nervous system functioning properly, it seems a good idea to “Start by doing what you like best.”
At least that way, maybe you’ll keep doing it…