Newspaper Style

One side-effect of the recent blizzard here in Northern Virginia was three days (so far) without newspaper delivery. Yesterday I resorted to reading the Washington Post online. I like getting the newspaper because it means the first thing I read each morning is not on a screen. I read so much on computer, tablet, and phone screens that I welcome any break.

This morning, I needed the newspaper. I walked up to the grocery store, navigated the icy parking lot, and picked up the Washington Post and New York Times. It was nice to sit on the couch and read through the newspapers with the sound of my neighbors digging out of the blizzard. I finished digging us out yesterday.

I prefer the newspaper to online news for several reasons:

  1. While it is not as timely as the instantaneous reporting that takes place online, there is more of sense of certainty in what I read. There has been time to check facts, for instance.
  2. I can read the obituary section and be fairly certain that if someone is reported to have died, they really have, in fact, died.
  3. The quality of writing in the newspaper is, generally speaking, better than instantaneous online news sources.

Actually, it occurred to me while reading both papers this morning that the newspapers—at least the ones that I read—have no real style to the writing. Stories in the Post and the Times adhere more or less to generic reporting style. They stick to the facts. The who, what, when, where are right there in the lead paragraph. I like this lack of style. It reminds me of Edward R. Murrow-like news reporting.

I get annoyed by articles that don’t follow this standard fact-reporting pattern. The more in-depth stories tend to deviate from this pattern, at least in the Post. I generally roll my eyes when a story begins something like this:

John Doe didn’t expect to be stuck in his car for eight hours when he left his job at Acme Corporation before the snow began to fall last night.

I suppose that the introduction of John Doe into the story is supposed to give it a more personal touch. If I wanted that, I’d watch Sunday Morning.

There are stylistic differences between papers, but they are superficial. The New York Times refers to every one as Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. I am used to seeing the obituaries in the Metro section of the Post, but the Times national editions has them at the end of the Sports section.

The writing itself in both papers is bland, but bland in this case is good. Like a textbook, the writers are reporting on the news, and the news tends to be a collection of facts, mixed with varying degrees of opinion. I am speaking here of news stories. Columns and columnists are a different matter. In a column, the writer’s unique style emerges. I have yet to find a columnist I enjoy as much as I enjoyed Al Martinez’s column in the Los Angeles Times in the early 1990s. As Martinez wrote in his last column (for the Daily News)

Good writing, as one L.A. Times publisher said when the Otis Chandler era came to an end, isn’t a requirement for newspapers anymore. My writing is just too ornate, too stylistic, too gothic and too soft for those who own newspapers.

Martinez wrote that three years ago, but I think it is still true today—at least in the big metropolitan papers.