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March 11, 2008


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i have to disagree with you on your distate for formulaic newspaper writing. i happen to think there's a place for it, especially when a story first breaks, and especially when i'm dealing with unbelievable wordiness from the philadelphia paper of record. when i want to know WHAT is happening, it's actually useful to be able to predict the format of a piece, rather than have to wade through a series of well-chosen words to get to the lede.

also, you're tough on beat reporters. yes, they could be more creative. yes, sometimes they use cliches. but they have a lot to do (as you know). i don't fault them for sometimes not reaching the limits of their literary imagination -- PARTICULARLY when they're writing a breaking news, "these are the facts" story that they know very well people can read in about 1000 other publications by typing a few keywords into Google. you might argue that's the very reason reporters for the NYT or whatever SHOULD be more creative. but i don't think an underpaid beat reporter is gonna feel too much like waging a war against the overwhelming power of the Internet with creative phrasing. they can put more work into the stuff that deserves it -- features.

Conor Friedersdorf

Were staleness my only complaint about the piece you'd have an argument -- after all, beat reporters can't polish their prose like novelists do, and reasonable people can disagree about the perfect balance of good writing and efficient writing.

But my critique isn't just that the metaphor in the lede is stale -- it's that the lede is inaccurate due to the metaphor it employs.

Albany government isn't paralyzed -- its members are "running around" to "shore up support" if they are Democrats, and conspiring to "leverage" this scandal if they are Republicans.

It's also worth noting that paralysis entails not just being distracted by a spectacle -- being awestruck or "stopped in one's tracks" -- but an actual inability to move, whereas the Albany legislature could take up a bill to regulate the color of cotton candy if it wanted to today.

I'd argue that bad newspaper writing is one reason fewer people are reading venerable old broadsheets anymore, but even if I'm wrong, surely we can agree that newspaper writing should be accurate, and that lazily employing metaphors without thinking through what they mean tends to produce inaccuracies.


i suppose the writer was trying to wring a bit more drama out of the situation, but venerable old broadsheets certainly aren't the only ones doing that. and haven't things always been this way in the newspaper world? of course i haven't been around long enough to know for sure, but my hunch is, newspaper reporters have always tended toward sensationalism. not that that excuses it.

oh, and one other thing. you seem to think it's obvious to readers what democrats and republications are doing with the spitzer situation. i'm not so sure. it's obvious to you b/c you're a journalist, but maybe not to people who are, say, seeing patients in the middle of the day, or meeting with a client to get distribution for legal pads at a local stationary store. you think like a journalist, and you're always engaged in this stuff. not everyone else is.

Conor Friedersdorf

Yeah, I think you're right that this kind of thing has always gone on in newspapers, but I don't think that it actually wrings more drama out of the news -- it's hard to imagine your average newspaper reader, upon reading that the legislature is "paralyzed," thinking, "Wow!"

In fact, this is a pretty perfect example of a story that needs no sensationalism -- the governor of New York got caught on tape soliciting $4,000 a night prostitutes, whose madame warns them that he likes to do "things that aren't safe." It almost writes itself.

And you're right that the average newspaper reader doesn't know what is going on in Albany as well as I do, which I think strengthens my point rather than weakening it. I see the paralysis metaphor, and I think, "Ugh. Bad writing. And the metaphor doesn't even fit," but I'm not mislead because I know what's going on.

Whereas the less informed newspaper reader sees the paralysis metaphor and thinks, "Huh, the legislature must be constrained from taking any action for the duration of this scandal due to some circumstance that I don't understand and that isn't described."


okay, okay :) i yield. PS: isn't this blog supposed to have, like, three authors?

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