We don’t entirely agree with Michael Kinsley’s piece in the Atlantic this week criticizing newspapers for verbosity, but we’ll defend to the death his right to say it (briefly). Kinsley (below right) eviscerates both The New York Times and the Washington Post for their coverage of health care reform by dissecting lead paragraphs and quotation choices. Are all these words really necessary? Kinsley thinks not.
The Post, for example, leads its story with 13 words of pointless Presidential rhetoric and then proceeds to quote other lawmakers making equally vapid statements. Readers don’t care if legislators are “answering the call of history,” Kinsley notes. They want to know what happened. Unfortunately, reporters and editors have been trained to frame everything within the bigger context of “what it means,” and in the process have obscured news of the actual event.
Perhaps the most controversial point in the piece is Kinsley’s criticism of the standard journalistic tactic of attributing analysis where attribution really isn’t needed. He cites a recent New York Times story about the unintended consequences of regulatory crackdowns on Wall Street bonuses. It turns out some executives who were forced to take stock instead of cash are now making a killing as financial stocks rebound. The reporter clearly considers this irony, Kinsley notes, but she’s not allowed to say that. So she digs up a quote from an obscure trade editor to validate what everybody already knows.
This last point is a slippery slope for news organizations. Facing competition from bloggers whose stock in trade is opinion, journalists are redoubling their efforts to sound impartial. Of course, impartiality doesn’t really exist, so reporters search for third-party sources whose opinions validate their own. Bloggers have no such limitations, so they are free to get to the point, state an opinion and move on. This has the effect of actually making blogs more efficient to read than stories in the mainstream media.
We don’t think it’s that simple. The most common complaint we hear about the decline of mainstream media is that people don’t know whom to trust anymore. By at least taking a stab at presenting an unbiased view, mainstream news organizations can save readers from having to triangulate multiple perspectives to form their own opinions. The risk, as Kinsley accurately observes, is that reporters pick and choose analysis that matches their own. That’s worse than misleading; it’s downright deceptive.
We have always believed the smart people have the capacity to hold opinions while also fairly representing multiple points of view. We see nothing wrong with the reporter in the Times piece writing a separate opinion, whether as a blog entry or something else, that states the view of an informed observer. If anything, that should encourage a reporter to present a more balanced perspective in the piece that’s labeled news. Just don’t mix the two.
Freelance Free Fall Threatens Quality
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, James Rainey laments the freefall in freelance compensation that is forcing writers to scramble to make a fraction of what they made two or three years ago. With publishers paying as little as five cents a word for assignments advertised on Craigslist, journalists are finding they can’t afford to practice their craft and are fleeing the profession.
The problem is systemic. Advertising doesn’t pay the bills the way it used to and online publishers have to shovel information into a bottomless pit in order to generate revenue. As advertising gets cheaper, the pit only gets deeper. Amateur writers and offshore competitors who work at a fraction of the traditional freelance wage are attractive new sources of words.
But what are those words about? As the pressure to generate traffic intensifies, online publishers are tempted to push out anything that will drive page views. So the news is increasingly dominated by sex, drugs and “Twilight” instead of investigative or interpretive journalism.
This is a real problem. And there are precious few ideas what to do about it. There will always be an elite cadre of journalists who can command a living wage for what they do, but the vast middle class of meat-and-potatoes reporters are seeing their livelihood seep away. A lot of publishers are working on ways to make advertising more profitable through better targeting and contextual relevance, but until those new models emerge, the freelance market will become less and less appealing for quality journalists.
Usage of newspaper websites is trending slowly upward, although the numbers reported by various sources remain surprisingly small. The Readership Institute says the percentage of people who never use newspaper websites has dropped from 70% in 2003 to 62% in 2008. The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers says about 20% of the population accessed a newspaper site in the past 30 days. On the other side of the equation, Scarborough Research reported a couple of months ago that 74% of American adults read a paper in print or online during the past week. Pew Research reported a year ago that 35% of American rely primarily on newspapers for news. Each survey examines slightly different slices of the public, but the discrepancy between the figures from all four sources indicates that someone is asking the wrong questions.
Hyperlocal news site EveryBlock added its first major enhancements since its purchase last summer by MSNBC.com. Visitors will now be able to post their own announcements, which will show up in the localized views that the service provides. PaidContent.org asks what the appeal of advertising will be if advertisers can simply publish their own notices for free. Presumably they’ll get some kind of enhanced placement.
Speaking of PaidContent, it’s hiring. The website is seeking reporters with specialties in either digital entertainment or the combination of tech, media and finance. Both jobs are based on the West Coast.
Former Baltimore Sun copy chief met John McIntyre continues to document the declining investments publishers are making in copy editing. He notes that Media General will consolidate the copyediting of three of its largest newspapers into one desk and that the Minneapolis Star Tribune is cutting 30 editorial jobs, with more than half of them coming from the copy desk. The paper says it won’t sacrifice quality. “Uh-huh,” McIntyre comments.
They’re taking the concept of hyperlocal seriously in the Netherlands. Telegraaf Media Groep has moved the former editor-in-chief of the Dutch tabloid Spits to lead a new venture that will create a network of hyperlocal information platforms. Details are still sketchy, but Bart Brouwers says the venture will ideally incorporate existing local bloggers. He also has some interesting ideas about slanting advertising to be written in more of a blog style to engage the audience rather than pushing messages. Imagine that.
This entry was posted on Friday, January 8th, 2010 at 8:32 pm and is filed under Advertising, BusinessModel, Citizen Journalism, Future of Journalism, Journalism, Newspapers. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.