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.