What do Ernest Hemingway, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe and Malcolm Gladwell have in common? All are exceptional storytellers who started their careers at newspapers where they never produced anything worth clipping. That isn’t a coincidence. Is there any writing style as deadening as what’s demanded at American broadsheets? Every last one employs hack desk editors who’d rewrite The Usual Suspects in an inverted pyramid structure if given the chance. The best newspapers employ some people talented enough to shine even under those strictures. They end up with columns or Sunday magazine inches. But the average offering? It’s so atrocious that Ezra Klein, whose occasional “tab dumps” show that he knows good journalism, calls this story “excellent.” That assessment cannot go unchallenged.
The Washington Post story, “Speaking to Generation Nexus,” is in fact an awful piece of journalism. As Gawker notes*, it exemplifies a kind of newspaper story where “hidebound newspaper editors are too afraid to let their reporters write,” and the closest it comes to a point of view is “a tangled mass of clauses that takes [Anne] Loehr and her consultant pablum at face value.” Reporter Ian Shapira might defend the piece by arguing that it isn’t his job to make a judgment about his subject and her worth as a consultant, only to report the facts about her and let the reader decide. That is the premise behind a lot of newspaper writing.
And in this case, it’s bullshit. A profile is an inherently subjective exercise. It forces the writer to make all sorts of judgments about his or her subject, picking and choosing which scenes to render, which quotes to include, which descriptions to offer, and what to leave out — the stuff my former professor Lawrence Weschler would call “the fiction of non-fiction.” Any pretense that there isn’t any editorial judgment being exercised is just that. But here’s how Mr. Shapira sums up his piece in a followup: “The story wasn’t Pulitzer material; it was just a reported look at one person capitalizing on angst in the workplace.” Is that really all it was?
Gawker understandably speculates that Mr. Shapira wanted to mock his subject but couldn’t. I’d put it this way: either the subject is mock-worthy for the absurd way she is “capitalizing on angst” or Mr. Shapira woefully misrepresented reality. Wouldn’t his piece be better if he made the most coherent case possible for whatever conclusion his reporting led him to draw? Even the subject would be better served that way — at least the reader could make an informed judgment about his prejudices and whether they are well-founded! Not coincidentally, Mr. Shapira’s followup piece, where he forthrightly expresses numerous opinions, is easily the best thing I’ve ever read by him. (Full disclosure: Mr. Shapira once interviewed me for an article. Though he seemed to be a very nice guy, I was underwhelmed and somewhat mystified by the end product.)
I’m glad newspaper staffers are out there. They gather a lot of important information — reporting that is useful to academics, historians, government watchdogs, magazine writers doing research, bloggers writing posts, commentators doing analysis, etc. Unfortunately, a combination of outdated norms, low salaries and tight deadlines often conspire to make their work less enjoyable and useful to readers than the various ways in which it is repackaged. That analysis isn’t offered to bolster any particular policy solution, it’s just what I regard to be the truth.
*[When quoting Gawker I’ve decided to offer the link down here at the bottom since they seem to regard that as the best method.]