The Wilson Quarterly

A little advice for newspaper editors: Cut to the chase, says Michael Kinsley, an Atlantic columnist. Crusty conventions prevent reporters from quickly getting to the point, and it’s little surprise that readers don’t hang around to trudge through excessively long articles and instead head in droves to Web sites that are eating print’s lunch.

For example, a New York Times piece reporting the passage of a health care reform bill in November 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.” In Kinsley’s estimation, fewer than half the words in this lead sentence say what happened. It includes unnecessary and unsurprising information. Unnamed Democrats bragged about their accomplishment? Really?

It’s not just the leads that have problems. Stories are peppered with generic, unsurprising quotes from people no one cares about. Often, Kinsley says, these quotes are used because convention forbids reporters from stating their opinions, so they find someone who will speak for them, as though quotation marks “magically turn an opinionated story into an objective one.” This ritual gesturing to objectivity also makes appearances when reporters qualify even the most mundane assertions, as in a story about how “the crackdown on some Wall Street bonuses may have backfired.”

In the software industry, “legacy code” is what’s left in updated programs so that they will still work with older operating systems. “The equivalent exists in newspaper stories,” Kinsley writes, “which are written to accommodate readers who have just emerged from a coma or a coal mine.” If someone doesn't already know that passing health care reform involves a “sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system,” or that Hillary Clinton tried and failed in this project during her husband’s administration, then that person probably isn't going to be reading the article. The problem is that now, those who do know these things may not either.

At a time when newspapers are carefully watching their bottom lines, ditching outdated conventions may kill two birds with one stone by saving costly space and keeping readers coming back for more.

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The Source: "Cut This Story!" by Michael Kinsley, in The Atlantic, January-February 2010. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Nic McPhee

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