I love The New York Times. I love its calmness and reasonableness and breadth of interest and, of course, its adherence to the grand global socialist conspiracy of which I am myself a minor but loyal proponent. All hail Gramsci! Nate Silver the Math Witch, bless us with your communist number-magic!
Sorry. Anyway. As I was saying, I love The New York Times. Today, I’m particularly impressed that – before he’s even in place – it is digging up dirt on its own new boss, Mark Thompson, the former director-general of the BBC. A Times article raises the possibility that Thompson knew before he left his post about the suggestions that Jimmy Savile had sexually abused children – a serious allegation, and one that might well stop him from taking the reins at the NYT.
But how did the Times headline this potentially explosive story? “Letter Raises Questions About When BBC Ex-Chief Learned of Abuse Cases“. Wow, punchy. I stopped reading by the third word. “Letter Raises Questions”? Seriously? That’s how you want to lead this? That’s your best shot?
I mean, I may not always see eye to eye with The Sun or The Daily Mail, but they would know how to make that headline readable. “BBC chief ‘knew about child sex scandal’, new evidence suggests”, maybe. Yes, calmness, yes reasonableness, but you still want people to actually read the article, surely?
This isn’t the worst, by a long way. Their boring-headline sins are manifold, but the most egregious is probably the “In Headline, Main Point Is Buried” trope. This is from a real article: “In Maine, More Lobsters Than They Know What to Do With“.
Come on. With the best will in the world, a “lots of lobsters” story isn’t going to sell itself. You’re going to need to spice it up a little. The way to do so is, probably, not to start it with “In Somewhere”. That immediately tells people who aren’t in Maine that this story is of less interest to them.
It happens all the time. “In Britain, Web Forum for Mothers Makes Politicians Sit Up“. Even apart from the “In Britain…” bit, do you think people are going to be excited by a thing that makes politicans sit up? Even if you do, why is it hidden right at the back of the headline? You’re trying to tell us that a humble website for mums has changed the face of British politics. It’s quite an exciting thing, in a way. Why not say so? Or: “Cameron Stands to Lose Much as Scandal Wears On“. What scandal? What are you talking about?
This isn’t only the NYT, of course, it just happens to be the most widely read US paper over here. The Washington Post is just as guilty, once topping a genuinely interesting story about Mitt Romney allegedly being involved in homophobic bullying at school with the crushingly dull “Mitt Romney’s prep school classmates recall pranks, but also troubling incidents“. Troubling incidents, you say? Tell me more! I must know! Similarly, today, they run a feature about how the career of General Petraeus’s biographer and mistress has been thrown off the rails by the recent scandal. The headline? “Paula Broadwell’s drive and resilience hit obstacles“. Oh no! Not her drive AND her resilience! They were her best bits! (Although at least the Post doesn’t feel the urge to Cap Up Every Single Bloody Word So That Your Inner Voice Sounds Like It Is Dictating Copy.)
Seriously: American newspapers are fantastic. They’re less feisty and irreverent than ours, but more considered and thoughtful and impartial. (The feisty/partisan stuff over there gets done by the TV news.) But there is something, some self-hating thing, deep within the lofty souls of American newspaper journalists, that secretly doesn’t want anyone to read the great work they do. As someone once joked to me, if the Titanic sank today, you would not be surprised to see an American headline saying “On Well-Known Ship, Some Unexpected Wetness”.