This headline shocked me awake the other morning.
It wasn’t what Paul Krugman had to say that bothered me (it did, of course, but in a different way); it was the use of alright in the headline.
You see, among those who know better, there is no such word. And the editors at The Times know better. (The headline was later changed online.)
It’s a small thing, really. As American Heritage points out, Langston Hughes and James Joyce used alright in their writing. Singers have accumulated a long list of songs and albums with alright in the titles (“The Kids Are Alright”; “I’m Alright”; It’s Alright (I See Rainbows); “Everything’s Alright”). On the East Coast, where I lived for many years, Alright Parking runs more grammatically challenged lots than I could ever count.
And yet, it’s symbolic all the same. The Times prides itself on precision, and alright has an aura of sloppiness. The Times stylebook warns against its use, as does the AP Stylebook.
American Heritage says that “one who uses alright, especially in formal writing, runs the risk that readers may view it as an error or as the willful breaking of convention.”
The headline appeared on the day The Times announced that it planned to cut 100 jobs from the newsroom.
After the announcement, many people said they were willing to pay to read content online if that’s what it took to maintain The New York Times – to maintain the quality that is The New York Times. (Clark Hoyt reiterated that in his column a week ago.) As so many other news organizations have gutted their newsrooms or fallen into bankruptcy protection, The Times has become a last bastion, of sorts.
Yes, The Times makes mistakes. I made my share when I worked as an editor there. But The Times still offers a depth and breadth that only truly talented editors, reporters, writers, researchers, photographers, artists and designers can provide.
But The Times stands above the crowd because it gives those talented journalists the tools and the time they need. That’s the critical difference.
But when you cut resources and lay off workers, as The Times did last year, you lose quality. You see a few more silly mistakes, a few more bad leads. You miss stories. You see alright in a headline.
And then you announce that more jobs are being cut and …
It all reminds me of the song “Levon,” in which Elton John sings:
He was born a pauper to a pawn on a Christmas day
when The New York Times said God is dead
I always thought of those lines as the ultimate declaration of hopelessness. In 2009, as in 1971, when “Levon” was released, The Times has a gravitas that no other publication can match. And if The Times were to declare God dead, what would that say about the world?
Yet in today’s dismal economy and cyclonic atmosphere for news organizations, many people worry that we’ll one day wake up to a headline saying that The New York Times is dead.
That’s a world that would never be all right again.
An afterthought: There has been much speculation about the meaning of “Levon,” which was written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, though little clarity. Did The Times really say that God was dead? After reading this post, I did some searching and found a headline with the phrase. It’s from March 24, 1968.
Was that the inspiration for the line in the song? We’ll never know. It’s fun to speculate, though, isn’t it?
Here’s Elton John singing “Levon.”