January 24, 2003

Nick Denton on Journalistic Mediocrity

Nick Denton, founder of Moreover Technologies and, more lately, a co-conspirator behind the launch of Gawker, the sassy New York City blog, comes down hard on U.S. newspapers in a column he wrote for Management Today, a British business magazine.

"Most newspapers in the US are lazy local monopolies; the television networks underbid each other for the lowest common denominator; and they all commit the cardinal sin of journalism, boring the audience.

"Newspapers design headlines to bury the story. They are so laden with abstract nouns or the passive voice they could be spoofs. Try this: 'Anger Raises Concern About Bush Run in '04'. And that was from the New York Times, widely thought the best of the broadsheets.

"Heaven forbid that any article be interesting enough to offend some readers. Even private correspondence is enough to get a journalist into trouble. Bill Cotterell, a political columnist, was suspended from the Tallahassee Democrat for sending a rude email in response to a reader."

Why, asks Denton, given the high-margin nature of the U.S. newspaper industry, is the journalism so mediocre? (Here are the latest earnings for Scripps, Dow Jones, Knight Ridder.)

His answer: Lack of competition. Britain, for example, has a dozen national newspapers that "compete furiously" for scoops - both high- and low-brow in nature. Over here, in the former Colonies, little competition remains and what does exists under cumbersome joint operating agreements. These newspapers, says Denton, "share the qualities of all monopolies: arrogance, complacency, and disregard for the customers."

These comments echo the message of more service, better context, daily dialogue delivered to publishers at the NAA's recent readership conference.

Denton ends on an optimistic note for American news media, if not American newspapers, by citing the emergence of the new Internet-based and blog-delivered media whose voices are "raucous, sloppy and amateurish" and, above all, "engaging."

UPDATE: Andrew Cline at Rhetorica points out the differences between American and Brit newspapers; MediaMinded keys on the local vs. national geography angle; and Cut on the Bias decries the American newspaper bureaucracy of "32 editors and three lawyers" needed to vet a story.

 Nick Denton America's bloated newspapers

Posted by Tim Porter at January 24, 2003 08:43 AM

In all fairness, it must be said that the stuff in the UK papers goes through approximately NO real editors, and they're often afraid to say anything that might be considered defamatory at all since the defamation law here is so insane.

I wouldn't say the papers here are of high quality. There is, in certain areas, a broader range of opinions, but that's because America purged a significant range of positions (on the leftward side) from the public discourse decades ago. Consider: An athiest was able to win the leadership of the Labour Party, and 30% of the vote in a three-way race for the leadership of the nation - and that man was a socialist.

So the Guardian is the paper of the independent left, and prints a range of items that run from socialist to middle-of-the-road liberal to Labourite and New Labourite. The Telegraph is well known to be the Tory paper, but it is sometimes more libertarian and at other times more socially repressive - though not as bad as some of the other Conservative-backed papers (like the Mail, which isn't interested in the libertarian part at all).

But make no mistake: The press here is utter crap at actually getting things right. In 1985, I would have taken The Washington Post over any of the regular dailies here in terms of reportorial accuracy. The writing and editing was better, too. Then Murdoch became an "American" and trashed all that just like he had when he came here. The only thing the US press still does better is spelling.

Posted by: Avedon on January 24, 2003 07:29 PM

Good points, Avedon. I am not anti-editor, because we all need them. But most U.S. papers lack personality because they are run by committees of editors who wring the life out of bold ideas and audacious writing. I think Denton is arguing for less journalism by committee. So am I.

Posted by: Tim on January 25, 2003 08:39 AM

Jeez Tim, you think you've got it bad, spare a thought for us poor bastards downunder.

Posted by: woodsy on January 26, 2003 08:16 PM
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