Paragraphs!

James Joyner notes that a New York Times story about problems filling senior positions in the Obama administration takes its sweet time before mentioning that every administration has this problem:

It’s worth noting that one has to read seven “paragraphs” (NYT style apparently requires treating most sentences as complete thoughts and justifying a new paragraph) into the piece to start to get a sense that this is par for the course and into the 13th “paragraph” before this is stated outright.

Have you ever wondered why newspapers do this?

That is, why every sentence is a new paragraph?

I’m here to help.

Back in the days of old, when men were men and computers didn’t yet rule the earth, stories couldn’t be edited merely by hitting the delete key a few times.  So when a story needed to be cut to fill a particular space, it was convenient for every sentence to be its own paragraph.  That way, you could cut any single sentence you wanted, join up the copy, and you were done.  You always knew exactly how many lines you were saving and it was simple to make the cut without resetting the entire piece.

Electronic typesetting makes this unnecessary, of course, but there’s another advantage to this custom: it adds a bit of white space to the page.  Newspapers that don’t do this end up looking gray and intimidating.  So the custom stays.

As it happens, this caused me problems in college.  As a journalism major, it quickly became second nature to start a new paragraph after nearly every sentence.  My non-journalism professors were generally unamused by this and wanted to know why I didn’t use paragraphs properly.  After that, I adopted a more conventional writing style for term papers, which was no big deal, but does seem a little clunky once you get used to newspaper style.  (If you’re not used to it, of course, it’s newspaper style that seems weird.)

On the substantive point of James’s post, though, I’ll offer my usual advice: we could largely take care of this problem by eliminating the Senate’s idiotic insistence on confirming everyone under the sun.  Personally, I’d limit them to cabinet level positions and maybe (maybe!) their #2 deputies.  Add to that federal judges and perhaps the top ten or twenty most important amabassadors, and you’re done.  The other thousand or so positions should simply be appointed by the president without the Senate wasting its time on them.  As a bonus, this might also cut down a bit on senatorial whining about how they can’t possibly be expected to actually pass more than one big bill per year.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.