The Reasoned Review

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Newspapers? Boring!

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The Atlantic has a phenomenal piece in this month’s issue on the failing newspaper industry. We have all heard innumerable theories as to why our flagship papers are in bankruptcy (the Internet, an illiterate public, corporate control, etc.) but few have identified the stilted, overwrought prose style which has long been the newspaper industry standard, one which needs 1,500 words to express an idea requiring 500.

Stogy phrasing and sheer length are the main culprits The Atlantic identifies for print’s decline, which could be some of the best news in years for those still interested in the business of news. Fixing a “failing business model” would take some real work, but telling reporters not to write in an obscurantist fashion would be both easily implementable and fantastically cheap.

Some of Michael Kinsey’s excellent analysis:

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.

He’s making a lot of sense here, folks:

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.)

Definitely check out the full article.

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Written by pavanvan

January 9, 2010 at 5:08 pm

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