One reason seekers of news are abandoning print newspapers for the Internet has nothing directly to do with technology. It’s that newspaper articles are too long. On the Internet, news articles get to the point. Newspaper writing, by contrast, is encrusted with conventions that don’t add to your understanding of the news. Newspaper writers are not to blame. These conventions are traditional, even mandatory.
Take, for example, the lead story in The New York Times on Sunday, November 8, 2009, headlined “Sweeping Health Care Plan Passes House.” There is nothing special about this article. November 8 is just the day I happened to need an example for this column. And there it was. The 1,456-word report begins:
Handing President Obama a hard-fought victory, the House narrowly approved a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system on Saturday night, advancing legislation that Democrats said could stand as their defining social policy achievement.
Fewer than half the words in this opening sentence are devoted to saying what happened. If someone saw you reading the paper and asked, “So what’s going on?,” you would not likely begin by saying that President Obama had won a hard-fought victory. You would say, “The House passed health-care reform last night.” And maybe, “It was a close vote.” And just possibly, “There was a kerfuffle about abortion.” You would not likely refer to “a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system,” as if your friend was unaware that health-care reform was going on. Nor would you feel the need to inform your friend first thing that unnamed Democrats were bragging about what a big deal this is—an unsurprising development if ever there was one.
Once 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 …”)
It could be worse. Here is The Washington Post’s lead on the same health-care story:
Hours after President Obama exhorted Democratic lawmakers to “answer the call of history,” the House hit an unprecedented milestone on the path to health-care reform, approving a trillion-dollar package late Saturday that seeks to overhaul private insurance practices and guarantee comprehensive and affordable coverage to almost every American.
Give The Post points for at least attempting to say what the bill does, but take them away again for the bungled milestone metaphor (you don’t “hit” a milestone if you hope to reach the next one), and for allowing Obama to fill the first 13 words of the piece with tired rhetoric. The Times piece, by contrast, waits until the third paragraph to quote Representative George Miller, who said, “This is our moment to revolutionize health care in this country.” That is undeniably true. If there was ever a moment to revolutionize health care, it would be the moment when legislation revolutionizing health care has just passed. But is this news? Did anybody say to anybody else, “Wait’ll you hear what George Miller just said”? The quote is 11 words, while identifying Miller takes 16. And there’s more:
“Now is the chance to fix our health care system and improve the lives of millions of Americans,” Representative Louise M. Slaughter, Democrat of New York and chairwoman of the Rules Committee, said as she opened the daylong proceedings.
(Quote: 18 words; identification: 21 words.)
Meanwhile, Republicans oppose the bill. Yes, they do. And if you haven’t surmised this from the duly reported fact that all but one of them voted against it, perhaps you will find another quote informative.
“More taxes, more spending and more government is not the plan for reform the people support,” said Representative Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina and one of the conservatives who relentlessly criticized the Democrats’ plan.
(Quote: 16 words; identification, 19 words.)
Quotes from outside experts or observers are also a rich source of unnecessary verbiage in newspaper articles. Another New York Times story from the November 8 front page provides a good example here. It’s about how the crackdown on some Wall Street bonuses may have backfired. Executives were forced to take stock instead of cash, but then the stock went up, damn it. This is an “enterprise” story—one the reporter or an editor came up with, not one dictated by events. And the reporter clearly views the information it contains as falling somewhere between ironic and appalling, which seems about right. But it’s not her job to have a view. In fact, it’s her job to not have a view. Even though it’s her story and her judgment, she must find someone else—an expert or an observer—to repeat and endorse her conclusion. These quotes then magically turn an opinionated story into an objective one. And so:
“People have to look at the sizable gains that have been made since stock and options were granted last year, and the fact is this was, in many ways, a windfall,” said Jesse M. Brill, the chairman of CompensationStandards.com, a trade publication. “This had nothing to do with people’s performance. These were granted at market lows.”
Those are 56 words spent allowing Jesse M. Brill to restate the author’s point. Yet I, for one, have never heard of Jesse M. Brill before. He may be a fine fellow. But I have no particular reason to trust him, and he has no particular reason to need my trust. The New York Times, on the other hand, does need my trust, or it is out of business. So it has a strong incentive to earn my trust every day (which it does, with rare and historic exceptions). But instead of asking me to trust it and its reporter about the thesis of this piece, The New York Times asks me to trust this person I have never heard of, Jesse M. Brill.
Of course this attempt to pass the hot potato to a total stranger doesn’t work, because before I can trust Jesse M. Brill about the thesis of the piece, I have to trust The New York Times that this Jesse M. Brill person is trustworthy, and the article under examination devotes many words to telling me who he is so that I will trust him. (By contrast, it tells me nothing about the reporter.) Why not cut out the middleman? The reason to trust this story, if you choose to do so, is that it is in The New York Times. What Jesse M. Brill may think adds nothing. Yet he is only one of several experts quoted throughout, basically telling the story all over again.
In the current financial crisis, The New York Times and other papers seem to have given reporters more leeway than ever before to express their opinions directly. Editors may have realized that these issues are hard enough to explain without running into roadblocks at every turn labeled Warning: Opinion Territory Ahead. But the old wordy conventions survive. Quotes from strangers restating the reporter’s opinion are one. Another is adding protective qualifiers to statements about which there is no real doubt (as when I wrote above that the bonus restrictions “may have” backfired). A third—illustrated by the headline on that story, “Windfall Seen as Bonuses Are Paid in Stock”—is to attribute the article’s conclusion to unnamed others. Somebody sees a windfall. We’re just telling you about it.
The software industry has a concept known as “legacy code,” meaning old stuff that is left in software programs, even after they are revised and updated, so that they will still work with older operating systems. The equivalent exists in newspaper stories, which are written to accommodate readers who have just emerged from a coma or a coal mine. Who needs to be told that reforming health care (three words) involves “a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system” (nine words)? Who needs to be reminded that Hillary Clinton tried this in her husband’s administration without success? Anybody who doesn’t know these things already is unlikely to care. (Is, in fact, unlikely to be reading the article.)
Then there is “inverted-pyramid style”—an image I have never quite understood—which stands for the principle of putting the most-crucial information at the top of a story and leaving the details for below. Pyramid style is regarded as a bit old-fashioned these days, hence all those florid subordinate clauses at the top of both the Times and the Post versions of the health-care story. The revolt against pyramid style is also why you get those 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.) But ruthless adherence to classic inverted-pyramid style can also lead to repetition of the story again and again, with one or two more nuggets of information each time.
And then, finally, comes the end, or “tag.” Few writers can resist the lure of closure—some form of summing-up or leave-taking. Often this is a quote that repeats the central point one last time, perhaps combining it with some rueful irony about the limits of human agency. The Times health-care article does this. “‘Our plan is not perfect, but it is a good start toward providing affordable health care to all Americans,’ said Representative Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon.” The same day’s story in The Post does it too, with a quote too long to quote.
On the first day of my first real job in journalism—on the copy desk at the Royal Oak Daily Tribune in Royal Oak, Michigan—the chief copy editor said, “Remember, every word you cut saves the publisher money.” At the time, saving the publisher money didn’t strike me as the world’s noblest ideal. These days, for anyone in journalism, it’s more compelling.
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