British Newspapers Really Are Different

Jon Caulkins and I wrote an op-ed for the UK Guardian yesterday, which based on our US experience with the media was worded in a plainspoken style. The editor added a lede using the word “Manichean”.

Meanwhile, next to us on the page was Hans Kundnani’s analyses of “ordoliberalism“. When I see him in London next week I will toast his amazing vocab; in any event the editors clearly felt comfortable letting this abstruse term stand in his op-ed.

Almost impossible to imagine two adjacent articles in a US newspaper that would have many people (me included) reaching for their dictionary.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

19 thoughts on “British Newspapers Really Are Different”

  1. Just to play devil’s advocate: Guardian readers may be more tolerant of abstruse verbal collocations partly because the Guardian has been so notorious for spelling errors – hence its nickname of the Graun(iad). At one point Yes, Minister famously satirized it for transforming “The badgers have dwelt there for centuries” into “The bodgers have dealt there for centuries”. It is, however, profoundly disappointing to see Manichaean misspelled.

      1. Keith, are we going to divide the world into two radically opposed camps over this Manichaean malarkey? I don’t know whether the world is ready for the Manic showdown. Joking aside, Manichaean is the better form in terms of taking the Latin root and Englishifying it but good, as I think Newt Gingrich might say. I also miss Yes Minister (and Spitting Image) terribly.

        Did you ever watch Drop The Dead Donkey?

        1. Further point of order: you said:

          “Almost impossible to imagine two adjacent articles in a US newspaper that would have many people (me included) reaching for their dictionary.”

          Every time I force myself to read one of Comrade Douthat or Comrade Will’s productions, I find myself reaching for the dictionary – because words just don’t seem to mean what they used to. As for Andrew Sullivan’s On The True Meaning Of Conservatism series… well, res ipsa loquitur!

          1. I think you would enjoy it. It’s a rather nice satire of a Murdochian newsroom, complete with careerism, lechery, well-meaning liberal editors and abused cameramen.

          2. Morzer– thanks, will look for it. You might like “The Newsroom” a very funny Canadian satire of media

    1. Pointing to the lower end of the newspaper market (New York Post, anyone? National Enquirer, comrade?) doesn’t actually refute an argument about the vocabulary deployed at the upper end of said market.

  2. With all due respect, Keith:

    I would also note that while the UK has a handful of really good newspapers, the quality does drop off fairly rapidly after those. (The situation is, arguably, not any better in the USA, at least when calculated on a per-capita basis.)

    What is really striking, though, is the low circulation (per capita) of newspapers (total numbers are on page 20, you have to divide by population size yourself) in America compared to Japan, Germany, and the UK.

    1. I must say that I’ve been increasingly impressed by the quality of the German newspapers and magazines that I’ve seen online. I suspect that what the UK and US lack are intelligent middle-brow publications like Der Spiegel. I don’t find e.g. the Atlantic particularly convincing – and that seems the nearest equivalent in the US to me.

      1. Germany does have some high-quality papers, it’s true: one thinks, for example, of the (generally right-wing) Frankfurter Allgemeine or the (generally liberal) Süddeutsche Zeitung. But don’t be led astray; as in the UK, German journalism’s center of gravity is much lower than that. By far the most successful paper is Bild, next to which Murdoch’s New York Post is a model of sober, nuanced and intellectually sophisticated commentary.[FN1] In some ways it’s even worse than the British red-tops it was modelled on. (And it doesn’t bother hiding its Page 3 girls on page 3; they’re right there on the front cover.)

        The nearest US equivalent to Der Spiegel is, believe or not, Time. By “equivalent” I mean they attempt to the fill the same niche. Der Spiegel simply fills it with, emm, teutonic thoroughness; Time apparently has a low opinion of Americans’ attention spans.

        It would be hard to find a German equivalent of The Atlantic, at least among magazines with large circulations. I suspect the closest thing might be Die Zeit, a weekly magazine that has the format of a newspaper. To the best of my knowledge, however, it has not given Megan McArdle a job.

        [FN1] Ironically, given that Bild has been a valuable servant of the right-wing CDU party since the paper first appeared, it is very possible that Germany’s president, CDU man Christian Wulff, will be forced to resign in the near future and that Bild will have been instrumental in bringing him down. Possibly the paper’s editorial staff see what Angela Merkel has not (yet), that Wulff is a venal, dimwitted and dishonest mediocrity whose occupation of the presidency harms both the office and the party. (Though Bild‘s readership tend to be morons, its editors are anything but.) Of course, Wulff probably sealed his own fate when he threatened Bild‘s editor-in-chief with criminal prosecution if Bild published reports about a €500K sweetheart loan that Wulff got from a friendly industrialist and later lied about. (He took the loan while still governor of the state of Lower Saxony, before becoming president. Had he come come clean early and completely once the rumors began to circulate, he would probably have weathered it out. By opting for the Nixon approach, he will now likely become the second consecutive German president forced to resign.) Wulff is too stupid, apparently, to have learned these two important rules: the cover-up is always worse than the crime, and you do. not. ever. f*ck with the Bild Zeitung.

        1. I am going to have to disagree rather vehemently on one point here. Der Spiegel is vastly more intelligent than Time, has a better range of articles, a much less provincial perspective and actually asks interesting and sharp questions of its interviewees. I grant you that Bild is pretty awful, but even then I don’t think it quite manages to plumb the depths which the NYP explores with such unrelenting and malicious glee. I suspect that Germany simply has a better level of education overall and its population certainly seem much more eager to read as opposed to watching mindless TV. I am always struck, when I travel in Europe, by the number of people reading fairly challenging books while taking public transport – and by the relative lack of such readers in the USA. Sure, anecdotes don’t count for much in the great scheme of things – but this is something I keep on noticing. Perhaps Germany hasn’t given up on Vorsprung durch Bildung, if you’ll allow me a not completely serious reference to an old commercial.

          1. Morzer, I’m not disagreeing, really. You’re wrong only insofar as der Spiegel and Time really do, mutatis mutandis, occupy the same space in the journalistic world. But you’re right that the mutanda are pretty damned significant, and that Spiegel does a far better job.

    2. Hi Katja

      We are establishing different premises. You are showing that abstruse words are sometimes use in the NY Times, which of course they are. I am suggesting something different, namely that the level of sesquipedalianism is higher in the Guardian/Telegraph/Independent on any given day than in NYT and other upmarket USA papers. I will bet you a fiver on that.

      Note also I have written for NYT, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle etc., and I never had an editor *add* an abstruse word as did the Guardian editor. Indeed, quite the reverse: US editors generally try to cut unusual words used by authors and replace them with more commonly used ones.

      Last, I did not make the case that the papers are “better” in the UK, just different. Sometimes being plainspoken and accessible is a great virtue in mass media.


  3. I’m sorry, Keith, but this is ridiculous. I remember, when first visiting London, when I was 15 years old, being amazed at how dumbed down and stupid the newspapers were. The Times, this supposed quintessential thinking man’s newspaper, felt childish, and the other papers were worse. And let’s not forget, what I was comparing against was the parochial and backward papers of South Africa, where I grew up.

    Americans (or at least a certain segment of them) like to self-flagellate about how backward America is. But these things are all relative. Very few places in the world are Harvard or Berkeley — most are Mississippi or Alabama, and that’s just as true outside the US as inside it.

    1. The Times hasn’t been a “thinking man’s newspaper” for a very long time – and I am not sure it ever really aimed to be. It’s a traditional bastion of Toryism, with relatively little interest in the more dynamic or challenging parts of the modern world. I might also add that its quality and reliability declined noticeably under Murdoch. Having spent about 20 years reading a variety of American newspapers, I haven’t yet found anything which matches the Guardian and parts of the Independent for quality, although I note that tabloids the world over seem remarkably of a piece. I do think America does science/tech magazines better, for what that’s worth.

      1. The Independent is barely a newspaper these days. The Times and Guardian are fairly evenly matched quality wise. The FT is the real thinking man’s paper, while the Telegraph vacillates between quality and mid-market trash.

        Incidentally in terms of reader demographics and endorsements (whatever they’re worth) the Times is far from a Tory bastion – quite distinct from Guardian/Telegraph partisanship.

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