Meaningless quotes by non-entities
At our meeting on Friday I read out part of a letter … by Alan Parker, who used to work for us in the 1970s, and its main point was to explain – in a touchingly matter-of-fact way – that he had just discovered that he was about to die (which he did indeed do two weeks after he sent the letter). … I still think one part of it is worth passing on:
“I shall continue to read The Econ for the rest of my life, as my sub will outlast me. I shall enjoy it of course, but I should enjoy it even more if my death-wish could be granted: viz, that the editor decrees that henceforth all meaningless and trivial quotes should be excised before the copy gets anywhere near him. I cannot abide the constant oscillation between (a) serious reporting, and (b) meaningless quotes by non-entities. All I want is the story, clear and concise and preferably with a bit of style. As soon as I get to “Joe Bloggs, an accountant, says ‘these are big numbers’”, I turn over the page….”
I think he had a point. One of our hallmarks has always been avoiding the gratuitous quotes that slow down our rivals. Obviously, we should quote people when they are saying something new and refreshing – just as we should credit other news organisations. And I also accept that good sources occasionally need some form of payback; but, if you want to bring them into the story, make sure they are saying something that is original, which does not slow down the piece.
In general, our rule with quotes should be that either the singer or the song should be interesting. Thus “America is in trouble in Iraq” is worth using only if, say, the speaker is George Bush. But I would add three particular bugbears of mine. The first is beginning a paragraph with a general quote from an uninteresting source (“America is in trouble in Iraq” says Dwight Smith of the Foreign Policy Institute), when we are really just introducing a new part of our argument – and very little of what follows could be seen as Mr Smith’s unique insight. Quote Mr Smith later by all means if he has uncovered a new fact about National Guard numbers, or use him as an example of one side of a debate; but don’t hand over the paragraph to him – unless he deserves it. Second, where we do quote, we should whenever possible simplify intrusively long titles (so “Professor Dr John Smith, head of special research projects at the Joe. A. Doe Global New Media Centre at Massachessetts Institute of Technology” becomes John Smith of MIT). And, lastly, one word is often preferable to a full quote: “This research strikes me, on the basis of available evidence, as dubious,” said Professor John Smith etc can happily become, “The research is “dubious”, reckons John Smith of MIT”.
The alternative is more people turning over the page.