Is Shorter Really Better?

Why all those quotes in newspaper stories are a good thing

Michael Kinsley gets in some good shots against easy targets in his new Atlantic piece arguing that newspaper articles are too long: too much space-eating “context” is trivial election hype; too many banal quotes from predictable pols make it into print. And he rightly tweaks one of journalism’s oddest conventions, The New York Times’s headline-writing tic in which things rarely just are, but are instead “seen to be” or “said to be.”

But in the meatiest section of his piece, the situation is more complicated than Kinsley acknowledges. He complains that newspaper stories aren’t just burdened by quotes from politicians; they’re also gummed up by remarks from “outside experts or observers.” His case in point is a Nov. 8 enterprise story in the NYT, reporting that a plan to discipline Wall Street executives by forcing them to take bonuses in stock rather than cash backfired when the stock, distributed at market lows, promptly went up in value. But reporter Louise Story, who, as Kinsley notes, seems to have found this turn of events “somewhere between ironic and appalling,” can’t simply express her view—instead, she must find surrogates to do it for her, including one Jesse M. Brill, chairman of a trade publication on compensation standards. Kinsley writes:

… I, for one, have never heard of Jesse M. Brill before. He may be a fine fellow. But I have no particular reason to trust him, and he has no particular reason to need my trust. The New York Times, on the other hand, does need my trust, or it is out of business. So it has a strong incentive to earn my trust every day (which it does, with rare and historic exceptions). But instead of asking me to trust it and its reporter about the thesis of this piece, The New York Times asks me to trust this person I have never heard of, Jesse M. Brill.

… Why not cut out the middleman? The reason to trust this story, if you choose to do so, is that it is in The New York Times. What Jesse M. Brill may think adds nothing. Yet he is only one of several experts quoted throughout, basically telling the story all over again.

Kinsley’s right that it’s trust in the Times, not in Jesse M. Brill, that matters. But one of the reasons I trust the Times is that it is committed to earning my trust every day, and one of the ways that it does that is precisely by not “cutting out the middleman.” The presence of all those quotes—not just from Jesse M. Brill, but also Kevin J. Murphy and Charles M. Elson—is proof that the reporter’s perspective isn’t based only on instinct or intuition. It may have started there, but she’s done the legwork, talked to other people who might well know more than her about this topic, and had encounters that might have caused her to rethink or reconsider or look at things another way.

All those space-consuming quotes are, to use a phrase beloved by high school math teachers, the reporter’s way of showing her work. And, thanks to the very same marvelous technological developments that have shifted our media-consumption habits in a way that can make newspaper articles feel too long, if I am an especially engaged reader I can evaluate that work. I can research Jesse M. Brill and Kevin J. Murphy and Charles M. Elson and see what they’ve had to say on this and other issues, and how they relate to each other and their colleagues, and whether there is reason to think that The New York Times erred in urging me to trust them. I won’t undertake that process very often, of course—and most readers, who don’t read the paper for a living, will do it even less often than I. But I’m reassured by the fact that the Times makes it possible.

One other point: Kinsley presents an argument for why people who get their news on the Internet feel that newspaper articles are often too long. It’s less clear that newspaper articles are too long, or too laden with quotes, for people who read newspapers—and there are, despite everything, still a fair number of them. Washington Post ombudsman Andy Alexander wrote the other day that only 19 percent of the Post’s print readers also read its Web site. That seemed awfully low, but Greg Harmon of Belden Interactive told me that the figure, while probably on the low side of industry norms, was unsurprising.

The fact that a lot of people still read newspapers, and only newspapers, suggests that they may like—or at least, feel accustomed to—the way newspaper stories are written. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have to think about better ways to write both on the Web and in print, of course, or cope with the many other challenges posed by the shifting and fragmentary nature of the audience. But while we’re out there creating the new model, there are still people who like getting their paper in the morning, and newspapers should continue to serve them.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.