News & Criticism

Atlantic Columnist Condemns Boring, Longwinded Journalism


Michael Kinsley is way off his rocker in this wonderful attack on journalismisms:

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.

Among the encrustations is the literary habit that did more to make me stop reading newspapers and magazines than any other—the before-the-jump novelistic cliffhanger:

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.)

Soon there will be no newspapers.

Kinsley makes the case that news stories should not even quote statements from relevant officials: 

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.

Even more daring is the argument against historical context:

Who needs to be reminded that Hillary Clinton tried [health care reform] 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.)

How about anybody who is 25 right now, and would have been all of nine when the Hillary Clinton/Ira Magaziner health care overhaul failed? If Kinsley is suggesting that all journalism should be done without glosses or context-fillers, with no effort to help the reader with relevant data, well, that's actually a pretty cool suggestion. I'm not sure that's what he's suggesting.

The beauty part is that all these suggestions are completely defensible. I'm sure George Miller has a Twitter feed I can go to for health care huzzahs. Novelistic journalism is a third- or fourth-generation mutation, and nobody but the writers would miss it. And who needs ancient history from the Clinton era?

If this is what crisp writing looks like…

Is The New York Times in fact getting pwned online because of these writing defects? The Times should probably be concerned that its Alexa ranking of 101 puts it behind CNN, BBC, CNET, LiveJournal, and all major social media sites. But it's way ahead of at 299, at 378, and at 408. And trails all these domains at 528.

Now I'm not sure what Alexa rankings mean anymore in this tweeted-up, texted-up, shook-up world. But it's not clear any effort at Strunk and White-style directness would have led to a better outcome for the print media. If anything's striking in the history of newspapers' sad encounter with new media, it is the way big papers managed, almost literally in their sleep, to attract roughly the same relative amount of mindshare online that they had in print.

More fun with journalismisms.

Courtesy of Arts & Letters Daily.

NEXT: Backseat Drivers

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  1. Good Morning reason!

    1. Good morning!

      1. I’ve almost stopped reading blogs because of these waste-of-time comments.

        1. Except that it’s Suki, so stfu.

  2. One reason seekers of news are abandoning print newspapers for the Internet has nothing directly to do with technology.

    Internet ink is more expensive than print ink, therefore internet journalists have to use it sparingly.

    1. It appears I quoted the wrong line.

      On the Internet, news articles get to the point.

      Meh. We can’t all be perky rise-and-shiners like Suki.

  3. This is the kind of journalism I want to see. Only one quote: “catastrophic puncturing”. Short, pithy, too the point and lots of use of “spheres.”“leak”-plunges-northern-hemisphere-into-chaos-14311/?hnbgfv

  4. Is The New York Times in fact getting pwned online

    Don’t know, but aren’t we over the “pwned” thing yet?

    1. I’m still not even sure what it means. Although there’s a guy who has a similar commute to mine whose license plate says “PWN3D”, so it must be pretty lame.

  5. Michael Kinsley is a light-skinned white American with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.

  6. The New York Times is getting killed because it is boring preaching to the upper west side choir. When you refuse to cover or if forced to cover minimize interesting stories that don’t fit your ideological narrative and only look for dirt and scandal (the stock and trade of any profitable news organization) in one half of the ideological spectrum, you are going to have a boring uninteresting newspaper that no one wants to read.

    1. Whatever preaching it’s doing now, it was doing 15 years ago, and 15 years before that, and yet the New York Times wasn’t “getting killed” then.

      As you always do in these sorts of threads — despite being corrected every time — you are presuming that the NYT’s problem is that it has lost readers (e.g., “a newspaper no one wants to read”). Yet the paper’s readership statistics promptly disprove that. More people read NYT content now than ever before. Go look at the paper’s web numbers, and compare them to the old print circulation.

      The problem is simply that those web numbers don’t translate into advertising dollars the way they did in print.

      But go ahead — go on convincing yourself that the NYT is dying because of your own personal pet reason for disliking it. The demise will be more enjoyable for you that way! It’s certainly a lot more fun than accepting the dry, boring reality, which is that this is merely about the economics of advertising.

      I don’t get it, man. You’re a really smart guy, but you have this strange blind spot when it comes to this topic.

  7. Oprah was behind the anthrax attacks? I knew it!

    1. Anthrax or weight-loss revolution?

      1. If that really happened, Oprah’s fans would try anthrax as a diet aide, that’s for sure. And read her manifesto.

  8. The New York Times is having trouble because rabid badgers are loose in the newsroom.

    That, and the fact they have way too much overhead and not enough ad revenue because hardly anybody goes fishing anymore, so the fishwrap biz is fizzling.

  9. +1000 for a Strunk and White reference. I remember my 9th grade English teacher forcing us to read it thoroughly and use it every time we wrote an essay. I hated it at the time, but it will definitely improve the clarity of anyone’s writing.

  10. I think the main difference between internet reporting and print reporting is that print reporters still are writing for the retarded and internet reporters aren’t.

    An internet story on health care reform would never include Miller’s quote unless it was to mock him for it because it’s meaningless filler.

    For any given political story print reporters feel the need to seek out members of both parties to have them say something that essentially boils down to this:

    “Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah meaningless boilerplate talking point designed to obfuscate the situation and to conceal facts while taking up space in the overall dialogue yadda yadda yadda.”

    There is no need for any of this to be included, basically ever. You could remove all of that stuff from pretty much every news article and not only would nothing be lost but a lot of clarity would be gained.

    Reporters should concern themselves with the uncovering of facts. Quotes from politicians should generally only be sought or included if those quotes will embarrass the politician by being in conflict with facts the reporter has independently uncovered. If reporters treated all politicians and public figures as opposing witnesses undergoing cross-examination, and only asked questions to which they already knew the answer, reporting would improve. Doing anything else is basically saying, “Hey, can you lie to me for a while please? And feel free to push your agenda while you’re lying. Thanks!”

    1. There is no need for any of this to be included, basically ever.

      But then, how would the journalist properly convey the historic importance of health care reform to the reader. They’re supposed to educate us!

    2. “Reporters should concern themselves with the uncovering of facts”

      What a novel concept!

      Too bad it will never catch on.

      Most reporters are primarily concerned with “making a difference” – which is what they are taught that journalism is when they were in college.

      And that usually translates into being a steno pool for the pronouncements of team blue.

  11. Maybe it’s because journalists fail to state their thesis early, or have one at all.

  12. “print reporters still are writing for the retarded”
    Pretty much.

  13. Not to beat the liberal media thing again, but there’s a perfect example today– Time’s story on the Coakley-Brown race in MA. Which is all about how it affects the Dems, what Coakley needs to do, etc. Um, you think maybe the INTERESTING angle on this race might be why the insurgent came out of nowhere and may beat the machine, rather than a five-point plan for how the status quo can hold onto a safe seat until the 22nd century? Not if you’re Time, evidently…

  14. When it comes to news out of Washington over the AP, the first thing I have to do is move down or delete the spin.

    Example: “Obama Signs Law Raising Taxes For Certain Groups”

    The reader wants to know what groups, how much, why did he do this.

    Instead, they have to wade through Democratic Senator X defending the bill as “essential for the security of all Americans,” while GOP representative Y (who I didn’t vote for) criticized it “as another example of the descending weight of fascism on the backs of good Americans everywhere.”

    And then, if there’s enough left in the 8-inch news hole, do we learn who got the shaft.

  15. I think Kinsley could be on to something here. It will fall on deaf ears, though. The rest of the dinosaurs will just roar and continue to act as if they aren’t dying.

  16. Fluffy nails it:”…I think the main difference between internet reporting and print reporting is that print reporters still are writing for the retarded and internet reporters aren’t…”

    At least Conservative internet content is directed at readers who can THINK.

  17. Atlantic Columnist Condemns Boring, Longwinded Journalism”

    Oh, the irony!

  18. The NYT is failing not because it’s so long-winded, but because its content is so slanted and partisan.

    Mr. Cavanaugh’s kind of thinking drives me crazy. I know that a little historical context may be a crushing bore to the ADD Generation, but it’s precisely BECAUSE 25-year-olds were 9 when the Clintons tried to nationalize health care that such history is necessary. Without the history, every initiative seems brand-new, exciting and “fresh”, when in reality it’s been tried before (sometimes several times), failed miserably (ditto), and a total waste of time to try again.

    Historical illiterates are the patsies of the political class, and articles like this one can only further the politicians’ contempt for the electorate.

    We are SO doomed.

  19. If print journalism wants to compete I suggest doing away with all non-content words. No conjunctions, prepositions, articles, or adjectives. Just nouns and verbs.

    1. …like, texting?

      we r so dmd.

      1. No, “We doomed.”

  20. Well, Kinsley is onto something. I’m not sure it’s longwindedness, exactly.

    But a big factor for me is that the quality of the opinion writing is generally superior online.

    Meanwhile, when I go to the NYT site, it’s mostly to see what the retarded fetuses there are bloviating about. I don’t read David Brooks or Tom Friedman for their unique and insightful commentary. I read it to see what the Borg is thinking.

  21. Journalists at Dino Media are losing readers because they are frauds.

    If your stock broker lied to you about Enron, would you still use him? So why would you treat information brokers any different?

    Hell, even when they get their teeth into something like the ACORN or CRU scandals, all they can muster is censorship by ommision or a whitewash. If I wanted to waste my time reading propaganda, I’d read Pravda.

    I hope they all lose their jobs and starve to death. Little Eichmann’s whoring themselves out to their agenda and libtard narratives, like Maureen Dowd trying to carry off a sexy cocktail dress.

    Seriously, there should be consequences for working at Pravda. I hope they suffer all the way down to rock bottom.

  22. Here’s how I see it: most people don’t like to be fucked in the ass. Those who do, we call wingnuts.

    Most people want to see who’s fucking them in the ass and why. It’s the media’s job to tell them. It’s not the media’s job to tell them “Team Blue is going to fuck you in the ass, but here’s why you should enjoy it and specifically request no lube!”

    During the Bush years, the NYT got a lot of attention for its coverage of Bush’s misdeeds. Now they refuse to give any light to Obama’s, so only people who enjoy getting packed by Dear Leader will pay much attention. Conservative new media outlets like Breitbart are getting loads of hits because they’re telling us, in plain and loud language, who is fucking us in the ass and why.

    Now, if Team Blue gets unilateral support next round and they start fucking us in the ass, then people will gravitate to those outlets that tell us, with utmost clarity, who from Team Blue is fucking us in the ass, and why.

    It’s really not that complicated.

    1. Is it wrong that I’m turned on after reading that?

  23. Michael Kinsley: “Who needs to be reminded that Hillary Clinton tried [health care reform] in her husband’s administration without success? Anybody who doesn’t know these things already is unlikely to care.”

    Hey Mikey, we know you’d be making a much different argument if it was a Republican. 24/7 coverage of how her last attempt failed, distortion of the new plan by contorting it with the old one, etc.

    You guys are hacks. THAT is why people are abandoning newspapers like Wapo and the NYTs.

  24. It’s not the content. It’s the business model.
    — 30 —

  25. Does Kinsley sit around all day fisting himself and celebrating how stupid he is?

  26. So, who is Michael Kinsley?

    What I want from the MSM is more reporting, less “journalism,” and an end to the elevation of political implications as news at the expense of actual content. A whole lot of what circulates on the web still starts with info and facts gathered elsewhere. I can get all the opinion, assessment and speculation I want, my own included. I need reliable information aggregators who can also provide access to original source material like transcripts and polling data. That’s something that news on paper doesn’t have the space to supply, and something that outfits like the NYTimes only rarely provide because they’ve just carried the legacy print model over to the web.

    That’s the real structural problem. The mystery novel style is an anachronism, because internet news doesn’t have a fold, and articles are only divided into (irritating) multiple pages as vehicles for advertising. That’s when I “jump” to the electronic “print” version.

    Even web based publishing has yet to rethink the advertising model. While I wouldn’t pay for access to the New York Times opinion makers, I might actually be willing to spend some money for fact filled, ad free pages. Shoot, if I could keep a running tab, I know I’d pay for page views every time, just to eliminate the now ubiquitous, faux links to useless info with incredibly annoying roll-over pop up windows cutting into the text I’m trying to read. [Bless you, Reason!]

    My tolerance for length is a function of the fact to fill ratio and my interest in the subject. There’s a lot of news out there. When I buy a newspaper, I’m paying for the sections I leave on seats at the airport gate, as well as the ones I take with me to read.

  27. Sigh. More boring, goofy “newspapers are dying because of TEH LIBERAL BIAS!!1! idiocy.

    No. Newspapers — including conservative ones like the Washington Times — are struggling because of the economics of the Internet. There isn’t some exodus of readers, suddenly turned off by the “liberal content” or long stories; in fact, readership is way, way up. (Just check a newspaper’s old print stats versus its current web stats.) There is simply an erosion of the lucrative advertising model that made the thing work. That is all. That’s IT.

    All this triumphant back-patting is laughable. “Well, obviously this development is the consequence of that one thing I personally happen to dislike!” It’s like watching the Philadelphia Eagles lose a playoff game and declaring, “See, I told you green-and-black color schemes were bad.” It’s such a wildly off-base diagnosis of reality.

  28. Wrong Tom. I grew up reading 4 papers a day, including Wapo, NYTs and WaPo. As I became exposed to information these papers had deliberately withheld, and it became a pattern, I dumped them. Don’t even go to their sites these days, as I already know what they are going to parrot.

    1. What does your dumping them have to do with anything? More to the point, exactly which part of my post does that render “wrong”?

      1. I’m explaining how they drove off half their demographic. While you are focused on “an erosion of the lucrative advertising model”.

        You’ve identified a symptom, not the disease.

  29. /edit

    “including Wapo, NYTs and DMNs.”

  30. And I am Legion

  31. Think about it Tom.

    If not because of Lefty bias in the MSM, Rush and Sean and AM Talk Radio wouldn’t even exist. Thats an entire demographic that chose, through market forces, to establish a parallel venue where they could exericse their freedom of speech, exchange ideas, and their beliefis treated fairly.

    1. That’s all fine and well. Rush, etc., definitely fill a market demand. That still has nothing to do with the current financial struggles of newspapers.

      Good grief. What part of “the advertising model has been wrecked” don’t you understand? It’s wrecked for everybody — for liberal newspapers, for conservative newspapers. It’s like you think if somebody just came along and started the most fair-and-balanced newspaper of all time, they’d have a runaway winner on their hands.

      Just an aside: Some of you act as if politics is the only topic covered by the news media. It’s not. It’s not even the most important topic to most readers. I know it’s your pet interest, but beware of using that as some kind of all-defining lens on everything.

      People who are into fashion tend to notice everyone’s clothes, but that doesn’t mean everything is about apparel.

  32. Tom: “Good grief. What part of “the advertising model has been wrecked” don’t you understand?”

    I understand it. I know its been a huge problem for them. But thats not the reason people don’t read them anymore.

    And lets not pretend the NYTs is driven by market forces, with its shareholders blocked from treating the insanity of the Grey Whore. Its a propaganda organ, there will always be a Sulzberger or Soros or Chavez to prop it up.

    “It’s like you think if somebody just came along and started the most fair-and-balanced newspaper of all time, they’d have a runaway winner on their hands.”

    That would be redundant now that we have FOX News. 🙂

    Hey, I’d much rather read my information than watch it on the tele or listen on the AM dial. I PREFER TO READ. But I have to choose information brokers that present both sides of issue fairly. So I don’t subscribe anymore to WaPo or NYTs because these information brokers deliberately and rountinely lie to me.

    1. “I’m explaining how they drove off half their demographic.”

      “But thats not the reason people don’t read them anymore.”

      It’s like you completely skipped the part where I explain to you that readership figures are not only not down, they’re up.

      If you choose to dispute this — which would be silly, considering it’s an empirical matter — then be bold and dispute it. But don’t just keep bulldozing ahead as if it’s not already sitting there as a rebuttal to the nut of your “argument.”

      The problem for newspapers isn’t that they’ve lost eyeballs. It’s that those eyeballs happen to be worth far less on the web, which is where most have migrated, than they are in print.

      I am not disputing any of your observations about bias. I’m not disputing any of your observations about alternative media. I’m just telling you that you are putting FAR too much weight into this idea that some decline in readership is the source of newspapers’ woes.

      You’re like the people who used to say that the reason for the abrupt decline in CD sales after 2000 was that “there’s no good music.” It’s such a flimsy, wayward analysis of what’s really afoot, driven by your own biased preconceptions and wishful thinking.

      1. “It’s like you completely skipped the part -”

        Didn’t skip it. Just think you’re giving it too much weight – using your argument as an excuse to disregard the core problem. That, and the weaker you argument gets, the more you get personal.

        I’m simply explaining how they drove off half their demographic. While you are focused on “an erosion of the lucrative advertising model”. Gee, ya think the two may be related?

      2. Hey Tom, lets alienate half our client base and then try to figure out why we’re losing ad revenue…

  33. It’s that newspaper articles are too long. On the Internet, news articles get to the point.

    He lost me at this point in the first paragraph. Most news stories on the Internet are the same exact stories that appear in a print newspaper somewhere. The only difference is you can choose other sources than your local paper on the Internet.

  34. I saw that Tim blogged this earlier, but I waited until I got home to read the comments, after I had read Kinsley’s piece. Did any of the commenters read the article?

    1. Yes. Short version is that Kinsley believes its the paint job, not the engine.

      1. While he opened by comparing internet style to newspaper style, the rest of the piece was a collection of mostly valid criticisms of old school newspaper writing. Do you feel that he made any good points?

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