Comments of the Week

January 4-8, 2010

Every Friday, we excerpt some of the most insightful, articulate, interesting, and entertaining comments we receive each week. Think we’ve missed something? Well…comment!

Kinsley Amiss?

Michael Kinsley’s Atlantic column arguing that newspaper stories are too long elicited two critical responses here at CJR—one, from Greg Marx, saying that all those expert quotes in newspaper article are actually a good thing, and another, from Megan Garber, positing that the stories’ structure stems from how papers have conceived of their audiences. Both drew some interesting comments in response. To Marx’s piece:

But too much quoting is done just to show quote marks, not to really impart much new information. Too many are lightweight, restate what’s already been said, and could be easily paraphrased. I’ve actually had students ask me if it’s all right to write a story without a quote when I’ve deleted all their nonquote quotes and told them they could paraphrase it much more easily and directly for the reader…I think he’s saying if you are the expert, just say you’ve talked to so and so (and so) and they confirm the thesis that …. and skip the quotes unless they are really solid and move it forward. Too often just getting the quote is an excuse not to talk to the multiple sources needed to write with authority and really tease out the nuance.

—Doug Fisher

It occurs to me that it is seldom the case that the correct journalistic response in a web environment is the 300 to 400 word text news story. It is at one and the same time too long as a piece of breaking information and either not long enough or, more probably, not rich enough, to engage a user looking for more depth. Yet it is the format for which many news reporters have been conditioned to write, and for a linear newspaper it provides a handy summary size, and it is therefore the format around which the vast majority of newspaper newsrooms are organised - which is a challenge when it comes to convergence. Twitter has taught us the new language of news marketing - 140 characters and a link to something of depth and value delivered in real time by someone you trust is the obvious shape of all future news delivery. This should put a question mark over the future of the ‘middle economy’ of stories which have so long been the staple of news page layouts.

—Emily Bell

And to Garber’s:

For me, hearing that there was “a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system” is a few seconds longer and somewhat more annoying than reading “Health reform was passed yesterday.” But of course, not everyone will have followed the health care debate from beginning to end and may want to know why it is significant. Also, like you mentioned, the newspapers Kinsley calls out serve as papers of record. When we look back on the health care reform bill 30 years from now, we will want a bit more context than what a blog or Twitter post can offer. (“OMG Dems totelly enact death panels, lolz.”)

So often, when I’m reading a blog and the writer is commenting on the latest development in a long, drawn-out affair, they will simply link to the NYT article that gives proper background so that the blog can focus on a quick response. But if Kinsley wants newspapers — and their websites, I presume — to adopt the blog formula and only print the latest developments, who is going to paint the full picture for us?

—ishmael daro

Excellent piece. The worries you highlight are very real. However, I’m not sure it’s entirely unreasonable, ishmael and Megan, to ask our newspapers of record to provide the updates in one easily-accessible location, and the backgrounder somewhere nearby.


Nothing Gets Links Like Walrus Sex

Every writer is disappointed when a long, detailed column ends up producing nary a comment. Megan Garber pulled off the opposite this week, sparking an engaged back-and-forth in comments with a two-word post—her Kicker item tweaking Huffington Post for running a video of a walrus engaged in oral sex, on itself:

I realize that this was a very quick post, but the subtext here is that a really weird, immature video that appeals to a streak of low-brow humor that nearly all of us have is inappropriate for a news site. And I think that subtext is unfortunate. What’s the real downside to videos like this, situated amid more serious news? I fail to see it.

—Josh Young, social news editor at the Huffington Post

I’m all for a mix of stories, both serious and silly, on media sites (hence my willingness to write “Walrus Oral Sex” on the site of the Columbia Journalism Review). It’s just that the walrus video is a particularly inane example of diversity. While there’s nothing normatively problematic about it, it is the kind of video that, for better or for worse, is increasingly becoming associated with (sorry!) HuffPo. The subtext of the post, to my mind, wasn’t the fact that the video was wholesale inappropriate; it was the fact that you didn’t need to click the headline’s link to know where it would lead.

—Megan Garber

But as a very plain logical matter, how could there be any problem with an association between inanity and the Huffington Post unless there’s a problem with inanity? In other words, the mere fact of not needing to click to know where a link points simply cannot do the work you would ask of it.

Consider an example. Let’s say the title of your post was something like “Annals of National Security: Why Iraq Is Doomed.” I made up that title, but it’s not hard to imagine the association your readers would conjure up when you ask them, “Guess who?” They’d think, “Oh, there’s another awesome investigative piece by Sy Hersh. I’m so pumped!” They wouldn’t need to click the headline’s link to know where it would read. And that’s not at all a bad thing. Instead, it’s a good thing; that association is a positive one.


I’m not identifying as problematic the association between inanity and HuffPo. And I’m not saying that inanity mixed in with more serious news is normatively bad (and therefore not saying that the walrus video is normatively bad).

What the post was suggesting — though putting it this way is vastly, and fairly ridiculously, aggrandizing its wee pair of words — was the systemization of HuffPo’s inclusion of inanity in its newsmix. The outlet has developed a loose grammar of sensationalism for its post titles: “Something Sensational! (VIDEO),” “Something Sensational! (NSFW),” etc. (See, for example, this and this.) And it has implemented it with more systemic discipline than other major outlets…to the point where, yes, “Walrus Oral Sex: Pleasures Self In Sex Act At Aquarium (VIDEO) (NSFW)” implicitly bears the HuffPo brand.

Though the walrus video is, sure, a particularly inane example, that systemization isn’t necessarily a Bad Thing — hey, since the title alerts readers to precisely what they’re getting with their click, it’s probably a Good Thing. But either way it’s a Thing. That’s what I was saying.


Meanwhile, another reader weighed in to make the important connection:

Gene Weingarten (Washington Post) and Dave Barry have a running debate about who has the bigger oosik. You’ll see what I mean:


But How’s The Benefits Package?

Meanwhile, Garber’s Kicker post about a Craigslist ad for a freelance health writer who would be paid $4 for a 450-word story—that’s $0.0089 a word, with “no compensation if we are not happy with the finished product”—drew some understandably aggrieved comments. Here are a few:

How much is that an hour? And, didn’t there used to be something called “wage and hour laws?” Or “minimum wage law?” Or something like that?

—edward ericson jr.

I am guessing that, depending on what city this posting occurred in, they actually got tons of responses from writers and journalists who either desperately want a byline or, more likely, just want to be able to tell a potential employer that they actually have been doing some work while unemployed for the last 12 months from the LA Times. The New York Times. The Chicago Tribune. The Denver Post. The Washington Post. The…

—Betsy Model

I don’t take on writing assignments that pay less than I’d earn recycling soda cans.


Resolutions for 2010

Finally, this week’s “News Meeting” asked readers to make some New Year’s resolutions for the press. Here’s what you came up with:

I would dearly love to see an end to the practice of reporting on “the controversy” which lends credence to outrageous claims and distortions.


Please stop pretending that you can give away something online for free and charge people $2.00 for a stale, day-old paper copy of the same thing.


Please use proper citations which provide enough bibliographic information about the source cited that it would be possible to confidently identify it if it were in your hand. (No more references to an “a widely circulated industry report”). And while you are at it, how about a link?

When citing the results of scientific research, there are almost always two sources : a press release from the research institution and a published scientific paper. Please READ BOTH and cite them both (with links).

There are very, very few occasions for which anonymous sources are appropriate. Do not use them.

When writing an article that is a summary of a press release, link to the press release.

Please stop pretending that “traditional journalism” had ethical standards that new media lacks. The reason some new media companies make money and some of our traditional sources do not is not so much a business model problem as a content problem.

When building paywalls, be sure that every article has a citable landing page that can be accessed for free, contains key bibliographic information to make a definitive identification of the content, and informs readers about how to pay for it.


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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.