I'm doing research on the trains that run through Arlington. It's for a feature that will appear in the Fall issue of UT Arlington Magazine. UTA librarians Evelyn Barker and Lea Worcester, also the authors of this book, have been tremendously helpful with the historical research. They gave me a story from the Fort Worth Daily Democrat (July 20, 1876) about the first train that went through Arlington. Here's the lead sentence:
Yesterday morning, at twenty-three minutes past eleven, Engine No. 20 of the Texas & Pacific railroad, Kelly engineer and Beal conductor, uttered its shrill scream within the corporate limits, arousing the 'panter' from his lair, startling the birds from their nests in affright, and carrying joy to many anxious hearts who have waited long and patiently for the sounds that then for the first time reverberated through the hills and valleys around the beautiful city of Fort Worth.
Now that is a sentence! It meanders a bit, but I follow every twist and turn. Unfortunately, no byline. And also unfortunately, I doubt I will ever read a sentence like this in a contemporary newspaper.
By comparison, let's look at the New York Times--arguably the greatest and most important newspaper in the United States. From today's front page, I found:
"Renewed sectarian killing has brought the highest death toll in Iraq in five years." (link)
Important news, but hardly "startling the birds from their nests in affright." Newspapers just aren't willing to write exciting sentences anymore. It's not that today's writers aren't capable of such sentences. This is more a matter of "won't" than "can't." In their efforts to make the news sound like news, they have sacrificed a lot of heart and personality. I'm not the only person to suggest this. I first came upon similar accusations in Bob Cauthorn's talk at UC Berkeley. His message "The Changing Rules of Journalism" is available on iTunes U (Journalism & Media), and you should listen to it if you care at all about the future of newspapers.
Yes, the first sentence of this post isn't "carrying joy to many anxious hearts who have waited long and patiently." But even without the structural acrobatics of the Fort Worth Daily Democrat's lead sentence, I still sound more like a human than a news-churning robot. I'm also not charging money for you to read my blog. In theory, newspapers want you to spend money on their words. Let's make them be worth their weight.