If I ever end up editing a features section or a magazine, the first thing I will do is institute a new rule which I will then follow with absolute ruthlessness for the benefit of the publication, its readers, writers and the media as a whole. The rule is this:
Any writer that uses the first person in any form anywhere in the first five paragraphs will have their copy spiked and will not be allowed to write for the publication for the next six months.
The expansion of me, me, me journalism has been growing in recent years but it has now reached epidemic proportions, partly tied in with and partly due to the explosion of columnists, who often know no more than what is going on in their self-obsessed little minds.
The simple fact is that I do not care, except in a vague sense, what the journalist writing about a subject actually thinks. I don’t want them in the piece at all. I want them to go do the legwork and then write what they have learnt. But I most definitely do not want them telling me what they have done to get there. I want an article to start only once they have got there, spoken to everyone, and are about to head back.
The problem is that unless people are prevented from writing in the first person, they will do it endlessly, because everyone – and especially journalists – have egos and think their perspective is somehow inherently fascinating. To write the first person out of a piece automatically makes an article tighter, and more persuasive and that means, almost by definition, better journalism.
If you want an example read the two previous paragraphs again. The last one was written in the third person, the one before in the first person. Which is better?
This me, me, me journalism was especially prolific in the Observer yesterday. There was an interview with Max Clifford, the amoral PR man. It was about this man and covered how he was going public with his affair with his secretary that had been going on for years, even when his wife was alive. So how did this article begin?
“So, here’s a tricky question. Do I treat Max Clifford as he has treated others? Or, do I not? So not that tricky, actually. Although I do rather wonder…”
What is this meandering nonsense doing at the start of the article? And where is it going? Would anything at all have been lost if it was removed altogether? No. The first “I” arrives just seven words in, and the “I”s and “me”s and “my”s dominate the whole piece. Wrongly. So, yes, Carole Cadwalladr, your article is spiked and you are banned from my non-existant publication for six months.
In the Observer‘s Food Monthly magazine comes an even better example. John Carlin is interviewing Hollywood star Morgan Freeman, who has opened a restaurant or something in Clarksdale (I don’t know for certain because I stopped reading – you’ll see why).
First of all, the sub-head annoyed me. “Until Morgan Freeman rode into town, Blues mecca Clarksdale, Mississippi was a bleak, nondescript spot, in one of the poorest regions of America. John Carlin meets its unlikely saviour, whose gastronomic ventures look set to transform the place.”
Now, I have been to Clarksdale. I drove with an old mate up the “Blues Highway” from New Orleans toward Memphis and stopped off at Clarksdale and we rather liked the place. It certainly wasn’t a “bleak, nondescript spot”. It has a nice blues museum, which is rather limited but more than made up for it by simply having a big hall where people played the blues live. The town was quite cosy and old-town America and it was nice for that. But does it need a saviour? And why would Morgan Freeman be an “unlikely” saviour? And how exactly is a town saved by a restaurant? The whole sub-head is a load of nonsense. But, it was written by a sub-editor so, ignoring it, you venture onto the article itself.
In just six words, Mr Carlin’s article is spiked and he is banned from my publication for six months:
“Some days after the event, I remain bewildered as to how I ended having dinner with one of the best actors in Hollywood in a two-horse town in Mississippi. Normally, you have to plan to see Oscar-winners like Morgan Freeman. Normally, these things never happen. You send emails to agents, to which they don’t reply. But in this case the story just landed in my lap…”
Now, correct me if I’m wrong but would you be forgiven for thinking this an article about being a journalist rather than about Morgan Freeman? If the article had been flagged as being about John Carlin, the journalist, I wonder how many people would have read it. Rather than calling the article “Morgan’s southern comfort” why not call it “Carlin’s article writing”?
The fact is that journalists forget: IT IS NOT ABOUT YOU. It is about, in this case, Morgan Freeman. I do not want to read about anyone other than Morgan Freeman. And I don’t care how hard or easy it is to talk to Mr Freeman, I only want to know what he has to say.
How long do you think it will be before there is a feature on, say, Kofi Annan, that begins: “As I was brushing my teeth, I looked in the mirror and said to myself ‘what questions should I ask Kofi Annan?’. It was then that I realised…” etc etc?
Everywhere you look, this me, me, me journalism has taken hold to the extent that if you start reading a feature you actually notice if it just talks about the subject, rather than forcing you to view the article as a piece of journalism by presenting the journalist’s perspective in a quite unnecessary and distracting way.
Can features editors please start banning this nonsense. The readers will be appreciative, even if the self-obsessed journalists will not doubt try to sell articles explaining why they are not. They’ll find no one wants to buy them.