We are, as a culture, growing ever more informal with each other. Traditional social hierarchies are compressing, and one effect of that movement, The Economist recently pointed out, has been the loss of the little politenesses that express social divisions through the written word. “Dear Mr. Robert Smith” is becoming, in letters, “Hey Bob”; “Yours very truly” is becoming “xoxo”; and newspaper articles are on their way to becoming, essentially, printed blogs.
Well…maybe. I’m thinking of “Cut this Story!,” the Michael Kinsley Atlantic column everyone’s talking about—the one arguing that newspaper articles are too long/overwrought/over-contextualized/redundant/fraught-with-legacy to be compelling to readers. I realize that, technically, the column is no longer fair game for commentary—the Twitter flurry about it having occurred in the distant past of yesterday—but one feature of a successful column is that its relevance transcends the news cycle. And Kinsley’s piece does that.
So I’ll try not to repeat what others have said on the subject, quite smartly, already—see Felix Salmon and Spencer Ackerman and Robert MacMillan and CJR’s own Greg Marx—but I do want to address one additional point that intrigued me (and, to an extent, irked me) about Kinsley’s column. And that is the idea of familiarity—both in the sense of informational context, and in the sense of a kind of social communion between the reporter and the reader.
Newspaper narratives, Kinsley suggests, are antithetical to the news dissemination that takes place in the course of day-to-day, interpersonal discourse. “If someone saw you reading the paper and asked, ‘So what’s going on?,’ Kinsley points out,
you would not likely begin by saying that President Obama had won a hard-fought victory. You would say, “The House passed health-care reform last night.” And maybe, “It was a close vote.” And just possibly, “There was a kerfuffle about abortion.” You would not likely refer to “a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system,” as if your friend was unaware that health-care reform was going on. Nor would you feel the need to inform your friend first thing that unnamed Democrats were bragging about what a big deal this is—an unsurprising development if ever there was one.
Well, sure. And there’s certainly a case to be made for newspaper articles’ adoption of a more punchy, conversational, convivial tone. (Dave Eggers, in fact, made it just yesterday.) Just as there’s certainly a case to be made, as Spencer Ackerman put it while discussing the Kinsley piece, for the broad narrative goal that is “clarity of topic.”
And yet Kinsley is arguing for something more—and for, in my mind, something more complex and more questionable—than mere clarity. He is arguing, it seems, for familiarity itself. The kind that a blogger enjoys with his audience, or a Twitterer enjoys with her followers: the “Hey Bob” in place of the “Dear Mr. Smith.” The casual-ness, the looseness, the confidence of the communal: You follow the same things I do; you know the same things I know. (And also: You trust me because you follow the same things I do and know the same things I know.) Indeed, Kinsley’s basic mandate—that reporters, in their storytelling, should just get to the point already—is practical, and indeed possible, only if the readers being informed share common contextual information with the reporter. Only, that is, if there’s an implied informational intimacy between the producer of news and the consumer of it.
Context, in other words—so crucial to good journalism, regardless of the platform—doesn’t much matter in Kinsley’s framing of the singular news story; for him, the context is implied. Readers already know the backstory of a given event—that Democrats have been pushing for the passage of a health care bill, to take one of the examples Kinsley lampoons—or, if they don’t, they can get it from a well-chosen link. So for the reporter to lay out that backstory, in space-taking, time-wasting text, is redundant. And thus snore-inducing. And thus attention-taking. Et cetera.
The just-the-(new)-facts-ma’am approach Kinsley suggests, at once both intimate and impassive, works spectacularly well for blogs—whose authors tend to benefit from the form’s lack of structural constraint, and whose readers tend to appreciate the social aspects of narrative familiarity. Reading a blog, commenting on it, being a part of it in some way, becomes an implicit act of community. Making today’s journalist, OJR’s Robert Niles put it in a post this morning, a community organizer. He’s not merely a detached informer, but rather a social actor in the Gladwellian model—maven, salesman, and connector rolled into one.