Newspapers Need Better Writing

In a devastating takedown, Michael Kinsley argues that one reason print journalism is struggling is that its writing is “encrusted with conventions that don’t add to your understanding of the news” whereas we on the Web “get to the point.”  Among these are the inverted pyramid style, use of quotations that say nothing newsworthy, and hype language that adds nothing to the story.

short-writing-wideOnce upon a time, this unnecessary stuff was considered an advance over dry news reporting: don’t just tell the story; tell the reader what it means. But providing “context,” as it was known, has become an invitation to hype. In this case, it’s the lowest form of hype—it’s horse-race hype—which actually diminishes a story rather than enhancing it. Surely if this event is such a big, big deal—“sweeping” and “defining” its way into our awareness—then its effect on the next election is one of the less important things about it. There’s an old joke about the provincial newspaper that reports a nuclear attack on the nation’s largest city under the headline “Local Man Dies in NY Nuclear Holocaust.” Something similar happens at the national level, where everything is filtered through politics. (“In what was widely seen as a setback for Democrats just a year before the midterm elections, nuclear bombs yesterday obliterated seven states, five of which voted for President Obama in the last election …”)

An amusing tendency Kinsley notes repeatedly is the use of quotations — frequently of people the reader has never heard of — whose only purpose is to make an editorial comment the journalist wanted to make but isn’t allowed to because of “objectivity.”   The hint that you’re reading one of those is that more words are used identifying the person making the quote than there are in the quote itself.

My least favorite, though, is the longwinded anecdote at the beginning of all-too-many news stories.

[T]hose you’ll-never-guess-what-this-is-about, faux-mystery narrative leads about Martha Lewis, a 57-year-old retired nurse, who was sitting in her living room one day last month watching Oprah when the FedEx delivery man rang her doorbell with an innocent-looking envelope … and so on. (The popularity of this device is puzzling, since the headline—“Oprah Arrested in FedEx Anthrax Plot”—generally gives the story away.)

Kinsley attributes this to a revolt against the inverted pyramid style, which required the most important information up front.  I’ve always presumed it’s because most reporters were English majors and frustrated novelists.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. JKB says:

    I’ve always presumed it’s because most reporters were English majors and frustrated novelists.

    And after reading such prose, one understands why they are frustrated. Individuals often gets frustrated when over and over they fail to achieve even competency in their desired field.

    It’s not even good gossip writing.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I find this incredible. The “inverted pyramid style”, associated with “who, what, when, where, etc.” and with Ernest Hemingway, among other early to mid-20th century American novelists, has all but disappeared from current newspaper style in favor of a narrative style telling a story and evoking an emotion from the reader. I miss the old style. If we brought it back, we’d be better off.

  3. Don’t blame novelists, this is formula writing. I freelanced for newspapers back many years ago and gave it up because I was tired of writing to these ridiculous formulas. When writing restaurant reviews I had free rein and built a nice following, but when I would do a feature piece it just laid there like a lox. The only feature I ever wrote that I was proud of was one where I was able to don my reviewer hat to write a straight news piece. The result was (gasp!) actually kind of interesting to read.

    One other suggestion, by the way: novelists are entrepreneurs and reporters are employees of large bureaucracies. If novelists don’t communicate with their audience they don’t eat. All a reporter has to do is stay on the good side of his editor.

  4. 11B40 says:

    Greetings:

    I like to categorize this kind of journalism as meta-journalism, by which I mean journalism about journalism.

    Somebody somewhere should be working on the TV version of this problem. Two of my favorites are “journalists interviewing other journalists” as opposed to subject matter experts and the various emotionalizing and cheerleading techniques that are current in vogue.

    By way of disclosure, I was one of those students that always had a tough time writing a 15-page paper. Five to ten pages was usually my maximum effort output. Somehow, I apparently acquired a genetic parsimony when it comes to unnecessary adjectives and adverbs.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    Speaking of editors, I think that one problem with newspapers nowadays is poor editors. It’s similar to the problem of lousy buyers in retail.

    If I had to list the issues causing the collapse of newspapers, I’d say (in this order):

    1. Newspaper conglomerates created by leveraged buy-outs that saddle the papers with the interest payments on the loans. Recent difficulty in re-financing their loans has sped up the problem. Exaggerated notions of the income that shareholders can derive from newspapers. Collapse of the newspaper conglomerate business model.

    2. Competition from eBay, Craig’s List, etc. Exaggerated idea of the income that publishers can derive from newspapers. Collapse of the large newspaper model.

    3. J-Schools. Exaggerated ideas of the earning potential of a newspaper job.

    I don’t think that partisanship or even bad writing have much to do with it. We’ve had partisan, poorly written newspapers for centuries. They didn’t have much competition, though.

    I still believe there’s a viable market for small, highly local newspapers that are basically very modest single or a couple of person operations in which the publisher/editor/reporter ekes out a modest living. That’s pretty much what the pre-Pulitzer newspaper business was like.

  6. Drew says:

    Dave –

    Could you elaborate on the effect of LBO’s on the revenue trends for newspapers?

  7. DC Loser says:

    I’ve noticed this tendency in the WaPo. Their reporters try to be cute and it frustrates the hell out of me. After reading the first few paragraphs, I sometime still have no idea what it is they are trying to tell me. The WaPo is the worst offender with their sophomoric attempt at trying to create literature from news in an effort to win a Pulitzer, and their use of photo mag type photos for news stories.

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    Could you elaborate on the effect of LBO’s on the revenue trends for newspapers?

    Sure. In recent decades there’s been an increasing trend for newspaper chains to buy up newspapers, borrowing money to do it and saddling the newspapers with the resultant debt.

    Unfortunately, that made assumptions that haven’t proved out. The first was that the amount of cash that the newspaper could generate would, with the increased efficiencies of the conglomerate, enable it to pay for continuing operations as well as the debt. The parents haven’t saved the newspaper enough money to make up for the debt and increasing costs of operation while revenues drift away to competing media.

    The second problem is that is assumes an ongoing ability to re-finance. Given the problems with the financial system over the last year or so that’s become increasingly problematic.

  9. sam says:

    Many, many years ago I wrote for a magazine, and my editor was an old-time crime reporter. He made us write real tight. And for that I am grateful. But sometimes…well. One day I read an article about James Thurber when he was a crime reporter. A new cityroom editor had come onboard who told all the reporters that henceforth all stories would have one word ledes. The next day Thurber submitted a story that began:

    Dead.

    That was the way the man was that the police found at the corner of Fourth and Main last night.

    I told this story to my editor. His response was “That’s great!”

  10. Paper newspapers were doomed in any event. It’s obsolete technology. When I moved to LA last year it was the first time in my life I didn’t subscribe to the NYT and a local paper. By the time I get them, I’ve read them.

    Dead tree books are next.

  11. yetanotherjohn says:

    I think the medias lack of diversity is a much bigger problem.
    Imagine a paper trying to tell the story of politics with 9 out of 10 reporters being whites who were predominately in the KKK or unthinkingly sympathetic to the KKK. Can you imagine (no matter how good the writing) readers pulling away as the paper appeared to less and less reflect reality and ignored the important part of the story because it didn’t fit with their KKK sympathies?
    Just substitute liberals for whites and democratic party for KKK in the above and you have one of the fundamental problems with papers. The internet is just part of what is amplifying the problem, not the root source.

  12. PD Shaw says:

    That’s great,
    What Sam wrote
    About the James Thurber story.

  13. sam says:

    Just substitute liberals for whites and democratic party for KKK in the above and you have one of the fundamental problems with papers.

    That dog won’t hunt.

  14. sam says:

    Heh.

    That was how the author reacted to the comment on his story.

  15. I don’t think it’s the pyramid that is wrong (I hate buried ledes), I think it is the granularity that is the problem. When most of us have many sources beyond the newspaper, most articles should be short. Most should be updates, last 24-hours events.

    I do indeed read some long summation and analysis articles at newspaper websites, and at non-newspaper websites, but basically conditions for that form are reduced.

    An update on credit card charge-offs should be 3 paragraphs, once a month. A summation of credit trends should be 36 old-school column inches, but only once a year.

    (What will survive post web and post paper is too early to call.)

  16. Bill H says:

    After reading the first few paragraphs, I sometime still have no idea what it is they are trying to tell me.

    Yeah, except for “sometime” I would substitute “usually.”

  17. […] It makes one wonder if the reporters/headline writes know that Democrats would have to lose 11 (eleven!) seats to lose the Senate.  It makes me think back to a post James Joyner had up the other day:   Newspapers Need Better Writing. […]