Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Why newspapers fail

I was well along in Alex S. Jones’s Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy,* nodding at what have become commonplaces in describing the plight of traditional journalism, when a short passage about “citizen journalism” and “reader-generated content” brought me up short:

To my dismay, such material often has more credibility and is of greater interest to readers than what is produced by professionals. My frustration is not based on scorn for nonprofessionals but on the unhappy fact that the professionals often can’t find a way to produce something as interesting, readable, and credible.

My entire career as a newspaper copy editor flashed before my eyes in column after column of gray stodge. And I realized that while the major problem with newspapers has been the collapse of the advertising-supported business model, newspapers have sacrificed their audience by the uncritical production of low-grade prose.

The vanishing generation of newspaper readers formed the habit when you had to read a newspaper when you wanted something more than the thin gruel of information offered by the radio or television. But the rising generations had more choices and did not form the newspaper habit. My children and my undergraduate students do not do much more than occasionally glance at a newspaper, if that. Why do you think? Perhaps because so much newspaper writing is appallingly, relentlessly, unapologetically DULL.

And journalists are trained to write that way.

Look at the standard, straight-news summary lead paragraph. The writer has been told to cram all the essential information into a single sentence, leading prose such as this, of a type that could be called The Clot:

Completion of a tower that will give Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport controllers technology and visibility to monitor air traffic for the foreseeable future, settling a contract that will keep the controllers on the job and redefining air space corridors, are keys to the Valley airport’s future, Robert Sturgell, FAA deputy administrator, said Thursday.

[It doesn’t help, either, that an error of grammar makes this fifty-four-word monstrosity even more difficult to follow.]

The alternative to the summary lead paragraph is the stock anecdotal lead, in which utterly banal details about some person or persons with whom the reader is expected to identify are piled up until the writer finally gets around to telling what the story is about. I think of this device as the Day Like Any Other opening:

It was a day like any other for Wendy Whitebread.

Shutting off the alarm clock as the sun was beginning to rise, she pulled on her jogging clothes and shoes and took the dog for a quick walk around the neighborhood.

Returning home, she woke her children, Axel and Amy, fed them breakfast, signed the permission slips for a field trip and sent them off to school.

Heading down to the basement, she started a load of laundry and then returned to the kitchen to sit down with the morning paper and a second cup of coffee.

It was just then that the booster stage from a failed NASA satellite launch fell from the sky and demolished her house.

Or perhaps the writer will produce a snappier opening by rubbing the moss off some hoary cliché and attempting to pass it off as something fresh: the If You Write It, They Will Read device:

’Tis the season, spirits weren’t dampened by bad weather, the dream that turned into a nightmare.

It is when you are intrepid (or foolish) enough to continue past the lead that you discover more clichés, more slapdash syntax, and a dialect called journalese which is not like any English ever spoken. You will recognize it in the opening of a famous exercise by Paula LaRocque:

Hack: How were things in your vacation facility?

Frack: We had wide-ranging weather all season. One storm dumped more than seven inches of rain on our densely wooded lot, spawning hurricane-force winds and golfball-sized hail. Plus an unprecedented number of visitors arrived amid the facility restoration. …

I doubt that newspapers could have driven readers away more effectively with cattle prods.

*Of which more in a subsequent post.


  1. John, how long has it been since you've seen the film "Teachers pet".

    Fifty one years ago (when papers were still actually selling rather well) the die was cast.

    The rat-a-tat two finger typing reporter has a new home.

  2. It's not just the writing, it's the content. The Washington Post is my daily paper. (Full disclosure: they owned Government Computer News for most of the 8 years I worked there.) They recently sent a Style reporter to cover an opera in Santa Fe. The Style section sent another reporter to Europe to cover the fashion preview shows. Yet the Post routinely misses major stories in my suburban county. The Post is not unique among major metro dailies in treating the suburbs with contempt and ignoring them. But population growth, and hence circulation growth, is in the suburbs. For self-preservation alone the metro dailies should do a better job of covering their suburbs. What does it say when one of the largest papers in the country is missing stories that are broken by papers whose staffs would fit in my living room?

  3. I've probably said this before, but lousy writing is the thing that most deters me from reading newspapers (either online or in dead-tree format). It seems like an awful lot of journalists don't know how to tell a story from beginning to end. They often start at the end, jump back to the beginning, and then haltingly make their way forward. I often give up halfway through because I'm tired of trying to piece together all the out-of-order bits.

  4. John,
    After some 25 years as a regular newspaper reader, I allowed my subscription to the local paper to lapse this past summer. I still feel some guilt about this, but it had become increasingly irrelevant to the point where I subscribed mainly for the TV schedule - and I don't watch much TV.

  5. Jonathon, the whole point of newspaper writing is not to tell the story from beginning to end, but to create something that the user can (and often will) stop reading at any time after the lede. John's Clot example is an extreme case of this whole-story-at-once style, but my take is that if you plan to allow the reader to quit any time, you end up writing prose that's easy to quit reading even before it starts.

  6. Wendy Whitebread! I almost fell off the sofa. I was hoping when she went back into the kitchen a zombie was waiting for her, but you kicked it up a notch!

    We quit our papers because even the Wall Street Journal started making inexcusable wrong-word gaffes, and our Courant, "the country's oldest continuously operating newspaper" gets facts wrong, serves pablum instead of substance, and sends out writers who have NO knowledge of Hartford suburbs. They get business names wrong, street names wrong, school information wrong, and so forth. The "local" paper, run by people way out of town, is no better and even makes huge mistakes and embarrassing unintentional double-entendres in headlines. We want credibility and clarity.

  7. Bill said ...
    Only one grammatical error in that lead?
    In any case, yes, if I weren't working for a newspaper (as a copy editor), I very likely wouldn't read newspapers because the story content is far too frequently incremental and the writing is more boring than the topic.
    It helps not at all that reporters and line editors have chosen to fall back on noun-strung prose that limps across the breakfast table.
    But I also contend that most blogging is equally unimpressive -- the difference being that the bloggers are dealing in topics in which we have a particular interest. We are therefore willing to ignore clumsiness in exchange for getting the news we seek.

  8. Newswriting is writing by committee --the bigger the paper, the bigger the committee. A reporter's only hope that his story will run the way he wrote it is if the copy is edited by an even number of editors, one to change it and one to change it back; one to change it and one to change it back, and so on until deadline.

  9. I can only speak for myself. I had 22 years in newspapers before moving on to magazines. I have never been in a journalism classroom, ever, so I'm not equipped to criticize what they either teach or don't teach. What I do know is that in my years of work, I never saw anybody at the middle management level do much in the criticism of writing. The process of editing was largely to fill any gaping factual holes or potential libel in the narratives, which the reporters, who were being churned out by j-schools, knew little or nothing about. Plus, most of the managers had the stated goal of not rocking the boat in order to make it to retirement (most, but not all, succeeded). Brighter writing might have spotlighted irony or otherwise been controversial, so it was out. That's a big part of the reason I left. After I did, the executive editor apparently told his managers, "We don't want any phone calls (from readers). On anything. We don't like phone calls."

    No, he didn't make it to retirement.