Why the New York Times is boring

January 5, 2010
Mike Kinsley says in his broadside against unnecessarily-long newspaper articles. But what are we to do about it? The question is a tough one, as Kinsley clearly knows: the conventions he's complaining about, he says, "are traditional, even mandatory".

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I agree with pretty much everything Mike Kinsley says in his broadside against unnecessarily-long newspaper articles. But what are newspapers to do about it? The question is a tough one, as Kinsley clearly knows: the conventions he’s complaining about, he says, “are traditional, even mandatory”.

Spencer Ackerman uncovers a bit of the hidden point here: newspaper conventions have been built for physical newspapers, and can look silly in the age of the web — especially when the stories themselves appear, pretty much unchanged, on newspapers’ websites. It might make sense for the physical LA Times to run one big story about Afghanistan, but once that decision is made, no one is going to chop that one big story into three smaller ones for the website.

This is a subject which Ben Hammersley is in the middle of writing, very perceptively, about, in a four-part series on what he calls E-books, which are basically any means of packaging content. Here’s a bit of part one:

At the moment, the average magazine is made from a combination of Microsoft Word, Photoshop, In-Design, shared-drives, and PDFs sent to the repro house. As each step of the analogue production process has been replaced by a digital version (film photography to digital, for example) that bit has been swapped out and replaced. The upshot is that we have accidentally efficient production processes that are optimised to getting a print magazine out of the door every four weeks or so. When you then try to put that magazine onto the web, as we do with WIRED every month, the process is mostly cut-and-paste. This is one of the reasons why magazine websites aren’t very good: you lose so much simply because of the way you have to get the content from one medium to the other. The rest of the content you never had in the first place (for example because the original copy wasn’t written in HTML, and so doesn’t have links in it.)

There’s a lot of snarking on Twitter today about the amount of words it took Kinsley to make his point, but the fingers here should really be pointing not at Kinsley but at exactly what Hammersley is talking about here.

Kinsley wrote an excellent column for a monthly magazine. People reading the physical version of the Atlantic on the train or in their armchair at home will love the content, and will be very happy with the length; James Bennet, the Atlantic’s editor, puts out a really good physical book. And Atlantic.com is very good too, largely because it has lots of excellent purpose-built web content. But the magazine content needs to go online too, and when that happens you do get this kind of disconnect.

Exactly the same issues come into play with newspapers, as Ackerman understands. In the UK, newspapers indicate the importance of a story mainly by dint of the size of its headline, but American newspapers, especially the ones that Kinsley is writing about, don’t. The front page of the New York Times gives very little visual indication of which stories are important: instead, convention has it that the more important a story is, the longer it becomes. And thus a simple vote in the House of Representatives becomes a 1,500-word portentious essay complete with a laboriously-constructed 35-word opening sentence. It’s not because the story needs to be that way, it’s because of something much deeper in the physical structure of the newspaper itself — something which, of course, is lost when Kinsley fires up his laptop and calls up the story at nytimes.com.

Similarly with things like the “Windfall Seen as Bonuses Are Paid in Stock” headline: from the point of view of readers who are comfortable in the blogosphere, that kind of thing is a joke. If stock-based bonuses are creating a windfall, that’s the news, not the weird fact that the windfalls have been “seen”. But the NYT is, understandably, paranoid about fiddling too much with what Kinsley calls its “legacy code”, since it’s by far the most criticized and second-guessed newspaper in the world.

The more attitude and opinion you build into an editorial product, the better it becomes, in many ways — but, at the same time, it will also, inevitably, make more mistakes. And the cost of a mistake to the NYT is much higher than it is to just about any other publication. So cautiousness reigns. This is mainly a function of the NYT’s status as an authoritative source: it’s not another voice in the conversation, much of the time, so much as it is the foundation upon which much of the conversation is based. (Remember Ambassador de Sadesky, in Doctor Strangelove, explaining that the Soviet Union had built its Doomsday device because the New York Times had reported that the USA was building one. In that film, an error at the NYT ended up literally destroying humanity.)

A little bit of that authoritativeness comes from the fact that the NYT exists in physical form, but most of it comes from the brand, and from precisely the kind of overly wordy long-form reporting that Kinsley criticizes. I suspect that most NYT editors know full well that shorter stories would be much more readable. And on the web, it’s important for any given story to be as readable as possible. If you’re building a brand for the ages, however, other considerations come into play, and I suspect that the NYT is worried about losing in importance and venerability whatever gains it might make in readability and accessibility.

The New York Times is hardly a major media franchise in monetary terms: a public company, it has a market capitalization of less than $2 billion, and that includes its other properties such as the Boston Globe. If it were to be forced to compete on a level playing field with every other journalist outlet jostling for pageviews, it would be worth even less. The one thing it has going for it more than anything else — the thing that its reporters and editors and controlling shareholders live for — is its enviable global reputation for being impartial and reliable and — yes — a little bit boring.

Kinsley is in the process of building a website for the Atlantic which will be none of those things, and I wish him all success in that endeavor. We both believe that there’s an enormous market out there for short, feisty, funny, opinionated prose — the kind of stuff which would always be the first thing you chose to read if you put it up against a 1,500-word front-page story from the NYT on the latest political developments surrounding healthcare reform. But that doesn’t mean that the NYT should drop everything and move in the same direction. Franchises like the NYT — and Reuters, for that matter — get built up carefully over decades and centuries. That might encrust them with more than their fair share of old-fashioned attitudes, but it also gives them the hope of being able to rise above the crowd and be the calm center of the noisy blogospheric storm. If they decide to join the unwashed masses, in many ways they will have lost everything they stand for.


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