Bad writing in the mainstream press

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Michael Kinsley, a witty and incisive journalist formerly of Crossfire and Slate, has an amusing critique in The Atlantic of the awful writing that dominates so much of America’s “mainstream media.” My only regret is that he was so gentle, by Kinsley standards.

I have long felt the same way, especially since I taught a course at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, where a lot of the students in my class were already “spoiled” by the same conventions that Kinsley here lampoons. And yet, I could not dissuade my students from using those conventions. So they produced over-long and corny writing that you might find, well, in the New York Times.

What are those conventions? First, says Kinsley, grandiose verbiage:

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.

Next, the convention of banal, pointless and stupid quotes from “experts”, which repetitively restate what the article’s author has already stated, and where identifying the speaker takes up more words than are in the (unnecessary) quote. Example:

“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.)

Why? Because in this American convention,

it’s not [the reporter’s] 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.

Compare this with our view on quotes at The Economist:

…all meaningless and trivial quotes should be excised … 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… In general, our rule with quotes should be that either the singer or the song should be interesting.

Back to Kinsley. The next stupid convention is the equivalent of what the software industry calls “legacy code”, meaning yet more verbiage

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)? … Anybody who doesn’t know these things already is unlikely to care. (Is, in fact, unlikely to be reading the article.)

Next, what I (as opposed to Kinsley) call “fake color“, the obligatory “anecdotal lede”, whether it is germane and riveting or not. As Kinsley puts it, these are

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.

Kinsley’s conclusion: Cut out the crap. You might be better.

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One week in the drama of the printed word

Just a quick alert to those of you who may not follow these matters as obsessively as I do: This is a cacophonous week even by the standards of the echo chamber that houses the pundits who hold forth about “the future of the newspaper” and such matters.

For once, I cannot really weigh in until The Economist‘s next issue is out (on Thursday night), because I am writing on one aspect of this. But I wanted at least to point you to various angles at whose intersection you may independently find … a thought:

  1. Amazon yesterday announced its Kindle 2 (ie, its electronic reading device for books*). I have been trying the Kindle 1 and am on the list to get the Kindle 2. I cannot say more for now.
  2. Google is making available over one million out-of-copyright books for reading on your mobile phone, thus joining many others apps, such as Stanza, that let you do that already.
  3. In case it’s not obvious*, the Kindle lets you receive (wirelessly–yucky word) and read not only books but also newspapers and magazines. In fact, I am about to unsubscribe from my last remaining print newspaper, the New York Times, in order to read only the Kindle, iPhone and web versions.
  4. Into this maelstrom, Walter Isaacson (whose biography of Einstein is in the bibliography of my forthcoming book) has written a cover story in Time Magazine in which he argues that “micro-payments” will save the journalism industry. (Here he is kidding around with Jon Stewart about it.)
  5. Other stalwarts of the industry, such as Michael Kinsley, are already busy dismantling every part of Isaacson’s argument.
  6. To summarize, for those hibernating in an igloo without WiFi: We were confused at the beginning of the week, we are confused in the middle of it, and we will be confused at the end of it.

As I said, I will today try to make sense of at least one part of this mess, and you can read the result in The Economist on Thursday night. It’s one of those rare occurrences when my private interests as a writer and aspiring author overlap with my day job of covering my beat. Yesterday, for instance, I was interviewing the boss of Penguin, John Makinson, about the topic–we began by kidding around, because Penguin, of course, owns Riverhead, where an editor is right now looking at my manuscript.

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