The Economist’s flabby finales

A break from Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley today. Instead, a silly post about a serious magazine.

Though it calls itself a newspaper,The Economist is the lodestar of news magazines, loved and hated by everyone (see this great piece on the roiling passions The Economist raises among other publishers here).

Its mission statement is to “take part in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.” It does well at this, but one thing the tendentious British weekly fails at is The Last Sentence.

In American newspapers the last sentence is less of an unruly mount to tame. Generally there are two ways to do it: 1) In hard news the last sentence is simply the end of the inverted triangle, a sentence which conveys a final piece of information that, though valuable, is less important than the lede and following paragraphs. 2) In softer news, particularly long-form essays the last sentence wraps up a theme that has been building in the piece. It is most often a quotation or a description of some action, for example, a Haitian refugees taking another trek out of the camp in search of clean water or an ironic quote from a politician that basically says, “The more things change…”

Both tactics are hackneyed but also “invisible,” meaning that no matter how many times they are used, they are superior to any attempts to break the mold.

The Economist doesn’t always wrap up articles in the American style. Its authors are granted leverage to identify instances of right and wrong in their own voice, not needing a source to state it for them. This sounds off to American journalists, but it isn’t the journalistic integrity that grates me when I read these lines. It is the awful prose.  By dismissing the two other wrap-up options they have replaced them with a far worse third. It is a limitless variation on “Only time will tell…” Article after article you cringe as the last line approaches and then, whoom!, there it is: “Only time will tell…” The only section of the magazine free of this flab is the weekly obituary where, of course, in the matter of the subject, time has already told.

I get a real kick out of finding the worst (best) example “Only time will tell…” in each issue. Here are some recent favorites. All of these are the last line or two in an article in the January 15, 2011 issue. (Challenge! Can you write your own Economist final line? Say them out loud like a news anchor with a British accent and just try to repress the giggles.)

California’s Budget Crisis

It is a very risky strategy, but it might just work.

Floods in Brazil and Colombia

With torrential rainfall becoming more frequent across South America, such preventive measures are essential. But they are easier said than done.

Australia’s floods

Like the Wivenhoe dam, something may have to give.

Vang Pao, Hmong leader

Times have changed.

Lebanon’s tottering government

But this particular circle…looks hard indeed to square.

German politics

Even at the top of the class, life is hard.

The euro area’s debt crisis

It must be done eventually. It would be better not to delay.

The state of Spanish banks

Time may yet prove Mr Ordóñez right. But if doubts persist, for both banks and sovereign, he may not have much time.

Investment banking in China

But China’s perceived potential is such that they will take what they can get—and hope that this time will be different.

And best of all:

Playboy

There may still be money in the bunny.

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