Stefan Geens, once a journalist himself, really ought to know better. He’s
just published a bizarre essay
on his website, which alternates between bog-standard European superciliousness
("Go ahead," he tells the New York Times, "become openly slanted,
crusading, editorial, the way that European papers are") and utter idiocy
Street Journal "is clearly thriving where the NYT is stagnant").
It’s not entirely clear what Stefan’s point is, beyond the fact that he likes
the Journal more than the Times. But his arguments are ridiculous. "How
is a newspaper supposed to compete these days?" he asks, apropos of the
World Wide Web. "The New York Times a while ago decided to compete by becoming
more like that other unquestionably compelling toilet read, The New Yorker,
with long meandering articles that go in-depth in ways that Reuters and AP do
not." He says this in response to my
article on reporting simple news, but he gets his chronology completely
wrong. The long meandering articles predate the rise of news websites, and are
much more the product of American journalistic self-importance than they are
of a need to compete with cyberjournalism.
If Stefan can trot out tired old canards like the one about the way in which
American newspapers should embrace an editorial viewpoint, then I can rehearse
the old observation that most American newspapers don’t, in fact, compete with
anybody at all, and that this is why they’re often so dry and puffed-up. European
newspapers are nearly all national, while US newspapers have metropolitan monopolies:
the New York Times in New York, the Boston Globe in Boston, and so on. Very,
very few cities have real competition between newspapers, which means that both
readers and advertisers are stuck with one paper. This is not, quite obviously,
a recipe for innovation.
What does happen, on the other hand, is that journalists start to write not
with their readers in mind, but looking more towards higher notions such as
Posterity and the Fourth Estate. Only in America would a major
motion picture be made about a scandalette in which a magazine journalist
was caught inventing stories. I shan’t belabor the point, as Anthony
Lane has made it much better than I ever could. But in a nutshell, American
journalists, at least in their own minds, are a pillar of the constitution,
while the Brits are writing tommorrow’s fish-and-chips wrapping.
In any case, for what it’s worth, I agree that there’s no such thing as objective
journalism, and that it’s better to embrace that fact and be opinionated than
it is to fight it and desperately attempt to tread an inoffensive middle ground
at all times. But that’s where I part ways with Geens. For one thing, he seems
to think that it would be a reaslly good idea were the Times to write long-form
articles: he even tells the mandarins on 43rd Street "to poach some of
those editors at The New Yorker". In order to back up this assertion, he
points to the popularity of the Journal’s Middle
This is simply confused. For one thing, the Middle Column is closer to the
New Yorker’s short-but-perfectly-formed Talk of the Town pieces than it is to
the heavier, longer features. There’s one Middle Column story per day, and it
provides an oasis of light relief amidst the relentless dullness of the rest
of the paper. While the New Yorker rises or falls on the strength of its long-form
journalism, the Journal’s strength is its business reporting, which is generally
written in a very straightforward manner.
So it’s ironic, then, that Stefan says that "writing short straight news
is a recipe for decline into irrelevancy" at the same time as praising
the very organ which does short straight news better than anybody else.
But that’s not the only way in which Stefan is dreadfully confused. His statement
that the Journal is "is clearly thriving where the NYT is stagnant"
is linked to a story
in the Wall Street Journal about the newspaper industry’s twice-yearly circulation
report. In it, we find that daily circulation for US newspapers was up 0.2%.
The New York Times outperformed, rising by 0.5% – more than twice the
average – while the Wall Street Journal underperformed, rising by, um,
What the Journal did do, however, was start adding 290,412 of the paying subscribers
to its website to its circulation figures; it was this one-off statistical sleight-of-hand
which gave the surely completely objective Matthew Rose the ability to lead
his story with his own paper’s "16% circulation gain".
Of course, those 290,412 subscribers at $79 a year for the website only –
or even the 686,000 people with access to the Journal’s webiste at all –
are a mere fraction of the 9,109,000 unique visitors that nytimes.com got in
all over himself praising the Journal for being "merely a record of the
state of the newsroom’s reporting efforts at the end of the day," when
in fact many more people read the Times on an intraday basis than keep abreast
of what the Journal is reporting to its select group of subscribers.
By this point, Geens has pretty much lost the plot entirely. He criticises
the vaguely-liberal Times editorial page for being more strident than it should
be, in the same breath as saying that the Economist "smudges the line between
informing and opining in ways American media should emulate". Surely, the
Belgian is the only person on the planet who thinks that the New York Times
editorial page is more strident than the editorials which constitute the beginning
– and the front cover – of every issue of the Economist.
We shall pass over without comment Stefan’s discovery that "wifi plus
laptop actually makes for great toilet reading". But at least today’s newspaper
can be dragooned into a vital secondary purpose in the case of emergency; Stefan’s
verbiage, unfortunately, cannot, despite being much better suited to the task.