When did writing in major newspapers become so bad?

Run on sentences, indiscernible insider nods and confusing narrative perspective plague major news publications

Here’s a sentence:

Honor Levy, 23, with a piece of fiction published on The New Yorker’s website and a short story collection coming out next year, was regretting her decision to pull her piece from The Drunken Canal as we walked last Thursday past the publication’s unmarked white newspaper box in Lower Manhattan. 

I have so many questions.

Is the person a writer for New Yorker? Is The Drunken Canal somehow related to the New Yorker? What is The Drunken Canal? How was she “regretting” something at that point in time? Vocally or otherwise? What publication was being stored in those unmarked white newspaper boxes? Wait, is The Drunken Canal a publication?

I think what the writer is trying to convey is:

  1. Honor Levy has written short story fiction for the New Yorker

  2. She is involved in The Drunken Canal, a regional print publication based New York City

  3. Honor is conflicted about its success and her decision to not include an piece

Something like this would be more clear:

“Honor Levy was conflicted about pulling her piece from The Drunken Canal, a regional New York print paper she began last year. She had several short stories published in the New Yorker, but this felt different.”

Let’s move on:

But her friend and editor, Claire Banse, also 23, had told her the paper had already hit its quota on the word “retarded” and she’d objected. (What else rhymes with “departed”?) 

Wait, what does it mean to have a quota on a word? Are they not using that word enough or are using it too much? Who objected Claire or Honor? And to what? Is rhyming somehow related to the publication? Or are we just trying to signal that the publishers are edgy, or not edgy enough?

Now, her short story wouldn’t appear in the fifth and largest issue of the paper, whose mystique would only be enlarged by the fact that Ms. Banse’s co-editor, Michelle Guterman, who goes by “Gutes,” had closed the issue while experiencing Covid-19 symptoms.

I honestly have no idea what’s going on.

Reading even a few sentences left me exhausted. And explaining why the writing was bad would have taken too much out of me. But I wanted to try and quantify exactly how poor the writing is or if I’m just crazy. So I threw in the entire text into Hemingway, an app that identifies poor or confusing writing. Here are the results:

  • Grade 14 (aim for 9)

  • 16 adverbs

  • 8 use of passive voice

  • 2 phrases with simpler alternatives

  • 19 of 77 sentences that are hard to read

  • 33 of 77 sentences that are very hard to read

The sentence I had quoted at the beginning was one of those 33 “very hard to read” sentences. Here’s another paragraph appearing 8 paragraphs in that tries to explain what The Drunken Canal is:

The Drunken Canal is one of a handful of downtown media projects that have been sprouting in reaction to the dominance of giant online media, the homogenization of big social media platforms that make community feel global, not local (though they’d like it if you’d follow them on Instagram), and the overwhelming sense that nobody in media was having fun in the grim year of 2020.

The above could have been easily split into 4 separate sentence. The “though they’d like it if you’d follow them on Instagram” aside doesn’t even make any sense. What does big social media making community feel global have to do with soliciting likes on Instagram? In fact, what does it even mean to make community feel global as opposed to local? And is this bad? It’s in the articles byline - downtown New York crowd is pushing back against the homogenization of big social media - so it must be important. The article doesn’t expand or offer an explanation.

As an aside, the phrase the homogenization of big social media platforms that make community feel global, not local reminded me of this comic:

I get it. It’s a culture piece. And since the subject is meant to be edgy and subversive, the article should follow suit. But it’s just bad writing. I can’t be the only one who finds these articles unreadable.

Was it always this bad?

It’s hard to say. I noticed over the years that I couldn’t get through most culture pieces or articles with a heavy narrative aspect. When I read the NY Times article on Slate Star Codex, I was still confused as to who or what a Slate Star Codex was. I then read some comments that discussed the poor writing and I realized I wasn’t alone:

[NY Times] He denounced the neoreactionaries, the anti-democratic, often racist movement popularized by Curtis Yarvin. But he also gave them a platform. His “blog roll” — the blogs he endorsed — included the work of Nick Land, a British philosopher whose writings on race, genetics and intelligence have been embraced by white nationalists.


[Hacker News commenter Lazare]: So he denounced the works of one person who believes bad things, but he also linked to a second person, who may or may not believe bad things, but is liked by a third group of people who also believe bad things, so...logically...that must mean he actually does...support the first person? Despite denouncing them, because he didn't link to them, which proves... something...?

I think a problem is that modern newspapers cater to an audience that’s expected to be very plugged in to the cultural and political topic of the day, or at least fake it.

I don’t think it was always this way, so I looked up a similar cultural article from NY Times ten years ago (2010-01-01) about Twitter:

[NY Times 2010-01-01]: I can remember when I first thought seriously about Twitter. Last March, I was at the SXSW conference, a conclave in Austin, Tex., where technology, media and music are mashed up and re-imagined, and, not so coincidentally, where Twitter first rolled out in 2007. As someone who was oversubscribed on Facebook, overwhelmed by the computer-generated RSS feeds of news that came flying at me, and swamped by incoming e-mail messages, the last thing I wanted was one more Web-borne intrusion into my life.

Its still in the narrative style, but at least I can understand it. I actually want to read the rest of the article. It may have been equally confusing to someone from 2010, but the writing is much more clear and crisp. Hemingway app agrees:

  • Grade 12 (aim for 9)

  • 23 adverbs

  • 4 uses of passive voice

  • 0 phrases with simpler alternatives

  • 12 of 77 sentences that are hard to read

  • 29 of 77 sentences that are very hard to read

But more importantly, it’s intelligent and insightful:

[NY Times 2010-01-01]: In the pantheon of digital nomenclature — brands within a sector of the economy that grew so fast that all the sensible names were quickly taken — it would be hard to come up with a noun more trite than Twitter. It impugns itself, promising something slight and inconsequential, yet another way to make hours disappear and have nothing to show for it. And just in case the noun is not sufficiently indicting, the verb, “to tweet” is even more embarrassing.

Beyond the dippy lingo, the idea that something intelligent, something worthy of mindshare, might occur in the space of 140 characters — Twitter’s parameters were set by what would fit in a text message on a phone — seems unlikely.

Maybe I’m not the target audience for 2021 New York Times. Maybe the medium is the message. Maybe the convoluted writing with indiscernible insider nods is intentional to keep people like me out. Or maybe historically prestigious publications should stop hiring former BuzzFeed writers.