Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Why Newspaper Articles Are Boring

Michael Kinsley has a very smart article on the wordiness of newspaper conventions in writing. Felix Salmon gets rather wordy on the differences in production that he says result in some of those newspaper conventions, but he doesn't make the connections clear.

I'll distill it down to a single difference that neither mentions: hyperlinks. Much of what Kinsley objects to, the wordy identifications of people we don't know and probably don't care about, can probably be omitted. But if there's any reason at all to include a person's name, the identification (and perhaps life oeuvre) can easily be supplied on the Web with a hyperlink.

By and large, the big newspapers haven't figured that out. Or the other fun and informative things that any good blogger has figured out can be done with hyperlinks. Instead, in their Web editions, they link random words in a story, frequently not even the most important ones, to their search machines, which frequently give boneheaded results.


MT said...

That's a bunch of guff, what Kinsley says. As if utterly naive of news writing,--which he can't be as a columnist--he pretends Sunday is like any other news day (his "random" example is from a Sunday Times cover story--and that stories for the paper are of one kind and purpose. The idea that context is unnecessary and that it makes a story boring is the complaint of the smart and already well informed kids of the class make. But what makes newspapers so important to democracy is that they're egalitarian. Smart and well informed people ought to know that, as well as that the institution is not only in crisis but short on defenders.

Kinsley opposes stories that attribute and therefore seem to source opinions to "strangers" that are (it would be better to point out, he suggests) the opinion the reporter holds and which inspired him or her to construct and angle the report as he or she did. Bah! In instances, sure. But by opposing it generally Kinsley is denouncing the very means by which the Times and other papers earn and sustain the trust he says is the crux of news writing.

Links? Sure, links are nice, and they are reader-friendlier than footnotes, but to remove content to a link is still to remove it. Removing a quote source's name, expertise, institutional affiliation, the context of the utterance or any other relevant information is unfriendly.

Anyway, another thing smart people ought to know is that, because news writing is stylized and follows conventions, individuals can and do reliably skim and skip over a lot of what is unnecessary and uninteresting to them. This content isn't an impediment or a dead weight to the same extent it would be in an instruction manual or random text from an unknown author.

It's easier to read a tabloid or to watch TV than to read the New York Times, but that doesn't make those other news forms better or negate the need for the Times.

MT said...

In other words, "boring" is O.K. to the extent you need the boring parts to be reliable and entertaining isn't a news writer's first aim.

MT said...

"to achieve reliability"

Cheryl Rofer said...

Kinsley hit on one of my pet peeves with the NYT. An article will be going along, and then there is a quote that says nothing more than what has been said already. The speaker of that quote is then identified as someone I've never heard of, and his descriptor sounds like he is probably a consultant, hanger-on, or lobbyist.

When I come to one of those, it's like a rock in the middle of the road. I stop for a minute to try to figure out why in the world the reporter has included it. I haven't yet come up with an answer.

Quotes from the people I've heard of are frequently anodyne because of their political calculations and therefore could also be left out.

I think that Kinsley has hit on a real problem - that there are conventions in journalism that are being followed rather mindlessly.

I'll agree that reliability is a good thing, but hearing the opinion of a hanger-on undermines reliability.

MT said...

I think you're talking about what one can glean by deconstructing a story, if you come to it with a sophisticated understanding of the context and your own motivation to do so. Reporters write news foremost to convey an understanding, not to document how they have arrived at it, which to do in full would make a story utterly unengaging to anyone but the story subjects, their mothers and maybe journalism teachers. Some skepticism toward news is good and prudent, but the dissemination of the news demands a lot of people make a lot of assumptions about the good faith, thoroughness and competence of their reporters. That's why Fox News is so vile, and why credibility is as much about the reputation of the manufacturers and the industry as something we assess text by text. (Maybe less so in academic science publications, but the same is true there too. A text looks more credible if it's in Nature and authored by the Chair of the relevant faculty at Harvard. Could be lies and falsified data, but that's a risk we take in trying to be widely informed.)

Cheryl Rofer said...

Good points, MT.

But I'm still wondering how much of this newfangled technology newspapers, and particularly the "newspapers of record," might adopt and how many of the old conventions need to be modified.

For just one example, they could come up with a better set of links than their own search engines. And I see that the NYT is beginning to dip its toes into that ocean...

Cheryl Rofer said...

Here's a view closer to yours, MT.

Jay Rosen tweets "It was once thought that viewlessness had to be advertised when the news was delivered or trust wouldn't follow but how valid is this today?"

Newspaper Articles said...

Agreed on one point that the hyperlinks plays an important role in making an article interesting. This is the way which can lead readers to get into more details of any story, if they wish to. Or they can switch to next article after reading the previous one.