To Be Absolutely Frank

The Perfect News Story

Prestigious dailies could learn a lesson by looking at the Sun.

By 5.16.03

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I just read the perfect news story. It isn't about Iraq, al Qaeda or Jayson Blair, but it tells its story clearly, dramatically and at just the right length for the amount of news in it. How many articles have you read lately that meet that standard?

The Sun is the archetypal British tabloid: unabashedly biased, sensational and politically incorrect -- the antithesis of the responsible, punctilious journalism embodied in distinguished broadsheets on both side of the Atlantic. You know, like the New York Times. But as anyone knows who's ever read them, the tabs are not only more fun, they're often better written. This story from yesterday's edition is a fine example.

Let's start with the headline: "Claudia & tot flee smash." Five words, counting the baroquely lovely ampersand, and all but one a single evocative syllable. No need to explain which "Claudia," so why bother with a last name? The sentence sings as it calls up the essential images.

NPR listeners will object that supermodels in traffic accidents aren't "relevant"; and Vanity Fair readers will scoff that Ms. Schiffer is yesterday's celebrity. But if anyone wants to deny that here is a small but solid nugget of news, let him swear on the Columbia Journalism Review that he wouldn't listen if he heard it on the bus or at a cocktail party.

The lede (as media insiders refer to the start of a "piece") is admirably straightforward: "SUPERMODEL Claudia Schiffer and her baby escaped unharmed in a road smash yesterday." No attempt to suggest that anyone was hurt, even psychologically. Whoever wrote this understood that you don't trick the reader if you want him to read you again.

The economy of language can be sublime. In the next sentence, the protagonist is called simply "the beauty," which is beautifully simple and true. Ms. Schiffer is no doubt a complex person with all sorts of dimensions, but the reason she matters to us is her looks.

Next come some crucial details: the baby's age (an alarmingly vulnerable three months) and the make and value of the car. A $97,000 Range Rover is reassuringly glamorous, though it would have been newsworthier had the lady been getting a lift in somebody's Ford.

There follows a concise description of the accident and its aftermath, in which the anonymous writer's judgment briefly fails him. Even speaking metaphorically, it's just not plausible that Ms. Schiffer "leapt" from the damaged vehicle, then "jumped" into a taxi, especially since she was holding her infant at the time. So let's call this an almost perfect story.

In a nicely democratic touch (the Sun being a paper of the common man), we also get the name and approximate age of the non-celebrity in the other vehicle.

All this in 127 words, not counting photo captions. Some passerby with a point-and-shoot no doubt got a fat check from Rupert Murdoch for these snaps, including one that shows Ms. Schiffer looking awfully good for somebody who just "leapt" from a car crash. I guess supermodels are always ready to have somebody take their picture.

Tacked on at the end of this restrained coverage, readers get their dessert: 41 words of delicious tabloid hyperbole, in which the sexy star of a trashy TV show "cheats death" after crashing into a tractor-trailer "juggernaut." Just in case you thought you were reading The Economist.

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About the Author

Francis X. Rocca ia an American writer in Rome, Italy.