Slate-founder Michael Kinsley (now of The Atlantic) still writes occasional full-length newspaper columns--even as recently as this week--but he claims long and poorly-written articles
are partly responsible for newspapers losing readers. "On the Internet,
news articles get to the point. Newspaper
writing, by contrast, is encrusted with conventions that don't add to
your understanding of the news." His examples: needless
contextualization (often skewed to highlight the political horse-race), excessive
quoting to appear objective, and cute devices like opening dramatic
narratives and closing aphorisms.
This message resonated with bloggers, naturally, many of whom think Kinsley's writing tips are spot-on, though not all are convinced by his broader argument.
- Length Isn't Everything, argues Reuters's Robert MacMillan.
"One example [Kinsley] uses comes from a New York Times story
that is shorter than his essay." Length, MacMillan contends, is best
determined organically, story-by-story, "ruthlessly" editing along the
way. "Unnecessary words" and poor writing are the real problem, which "
Kinsley hits on ... elsewhere in his 1,800-word essay ... But the kind
of writing he attacks would irk him at 200
words--or 2,000." In closing, MacMillan gets to the heart of the debate:
I know of no evidence that says story length decreases are producing more subscribers. Certainly at many other papers, this is not happening. Circulation is falling because people can get stuff online for free whenever they want -- at any length.
- Kinsley's Not Saying Length Is Everything, decides Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein, who largely agrees with the piece. "Kinsley is arguing that the stories are inefficiently written. Lopping off 600 words at random wouldn't help readers." That brings him to his own point: why, then, is Kinsley's headline "Cut This Story"? Most writers don't write their own headlines, Klein points out, even though "the headline is the lens through which readers interpret the story." Klein suggests this convention be tossed in with the others Kinsley is criticizing.
- Preach It, Kinsley The Guardian's Michael Tomasky agrees with Michael Kinsley, and adds that, in a cross-pond comparison, "British papers are generally far quicker to get to the point." Here's the problem, he says:
In post-New Journalism US j-schools, students somehow became persuaded that they were supposed to be writers in addition to being information purveyors. The newspaper culture of the 70s-80s-90s, when (generally speaking) times were fat and staffs were expanding, reinforced this. And all these new modes of newspaper journalism proliferated: the human-interest story, the "news analysis" piece, the six-part look into shocking lapses in the municipal elevator inspection office, aimed largely at the Pulitzer committee.
- Actually, Quotes Are Helpful, protests Greg Max at the Columbia Journalism Review. "All those space-consuming quotes are, to use a phrase beloved by high school math teachers, the reporter's way of showing her work."
- Suggestion: Modular Journalism "Here's a refinement of the point that, I think, can soothe Kinsley's irritations," offers Spencer Ackerman: "modular journalism! Make just one specific point and leave, developing the story through hypertext and tag clouds ... I like it a lot," he adds, developing the idea.
- Writing Style Can't Save You Guys, proclaims conservative blogger Dan Riehl, who thinks Kinsley's argument outdated. "Making print popular again is beyond any trick any writer can dream up, on line, or off."
- Assorted Quips "Kinsley attributes [long, dramatic introductions] to a revolt against the inverted pyramid style," writes James Joyner at Outside the Beltway, "which required the most important information up front. I've always presumed it's because most reporters were English majors and frustrated novelists." Peter Kafka at All Things Digital chimes in with some meta-humor:
Michael Kinsley, writing in The Atlantic, takes some 1,800 words to argue that newspaper stories are too long, and that Internet stories "get to the point."
Robert MacMillan, writing for Reuters, takes almost 700 words to argue that there's a lot of lousy and long writing on the Internet, too.
They're both right! And both worth reading! And this post is 64 words long.