How “Think-Piece” Became a Dirty Word

Slate's Culture Blog
May 7 2014 9:34 AM

Why “Think-Piece” Is a Dirty Word

thinkpiece
Detail from The Billboard, "the world's foremost amusement weekly," for Jan. 5, 1946.

Last week, Carlos Lozada of the Washington Post published a widely shared and fundamentally snarky item headlined “How to write a Thomas Piketty think piece, in 10 easy steps.” Some of the pieces Lozada cited—like Paul Krugman’s piece in the New York Review of Books, for instance—are more typically called reviews, or possibly essays, and at least one of them is really a short profile. But Lozada made a canny choice with his designation: These days, when you want to mock a piece of writing, think-piece—also written think piece or thinkpiece—is the go-to term.

Peruse Twitter at any time of the day or night, and you’ll find people making think-piece jokes. The thrust of most of these jokes is that there are simply too many think-pieces—which, by the way, are defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as articles “containing discussion, analysis, or opinion, as opposed to fact or news.” As the satirical Twitter feed @ProfJeffJarvis put it recently: “Newton’s law 2014: for every thinkpiece, there will be an equal and opposite thinkpiece.” Thanks to the Internet, there are, one assumes, more think-pieces published nowadays than at any previous point in history, as print publications with limited column inches have given way to Web outlets hungry for content.

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Beyond the mere fact of that obvious glut, it is tempting to connect the term’s widely dismissive contemporary use to a beloved movie, Almost Famous, that came out right when online magazines were gaining steam and in which a revered journalist played by a revered actor uses the term pejoratively. But if you dig into the term’s past, you’ll find that people have been complaining about the over-abundance of think-pieces for a very long time.

Specifically, since the 1930s. “This is thumb-sucking season in Washington journalism,” wrote Paul W. Ward in The Nation in November 1936, in a column titled, simply, “Think Pieces.” When “the springs of factual news” are “all but dried up,” Ward wrote, Washington journalists turn out “dispatches that in major part are the product of the reporters’ communion with their own imaginative souls.” The next year, Paul Hutchinson’s “How to Read a Newspaper,” in the Christian magazine Social Action, echoed Ward’s complaint. “The practice of writing what the newspaper world calls a ‘think piece,’ when genuine news is lacking, and pinning the responsibility on unidentifiable ghosts, is far too widespread.” A few years later, Leon Whipple, in How to Understand Current Events: A Guide to the Appraisal of the News, lamented, “On dull days, a correspondent may be driven to write what his colleagues dub ‘a think piece’ draped round a phantom authority.”

Ward’s 1936 column is the earliest citation in the OED, but Google Books turns up a few earlier appearances, and some of these seem to have a pejorative cast as well.  “In brief, this book is a competent manual; it is not a ‘think-piece,’ ” wrote a reviewer in a 1931 issue of The Survey, a magazine about social work. (Prior to the 1930s, think-piece was not a journalistic term of art, it was just someone’s mind or noggin: In a 1909 short story, the hero is bashed “over the think-piece with a six-gun,” while a city editor in a 1910 story, impressed by a woman’s intelligence, exclaims, “Boy, your sweetheart must have a corking think-piece!” I have not found this meaning recorded in any dictionaries, though.)

Arts journalists have long used think-piece to distinguish a secondary consideration of something—or a broader reflection on the artistic scene—from a straight review. This usage, too, could carry a sting long before Twitter arrived. In 1948, Raymond Chandler said in a letter that, outside of Eric Bentley and Mary McCarthy, all contemporary theater critics were “just think-piece writers whose subject happens to be a play,” writers “interested in exploiting their own personal brand of verbal glitter” who “tell you next to nothing about the dramatic art.” That distinction, between critical writing that tells you something specific about art and the mere think-piece, seems analogous to the reporter’s contrast between articles with facts and think-pieces supposedly without them.

While think-piece has been used pejoratively for as long as it’s been used at all, the term is of course not always derogatory. One finds references to a “stimulating think-piece” or a “provocative think-piece” going back to the 1940s and ’50s. A writer in the English Journal, a magazine about teaching English at middle and high schools, noted in 1950, “To the trade, a think-piece is an essay that holds forth eloquently on the author’s philosophy à la Ralph Waldo Emerson.” To this exalted vision of the think-piece the writer provided an addendum: “The theory is that the market accepts a think-piece for publication only if written by a ‘Name.’ ”

If once upon a time you needed a “Name” to publish a think-piece, you certainly don’t anymore. That strikes me as a good thing. It also means that there are many more think-pieces out there, and, consequently, many more snide remarks about think-pieces as well. But perhaps it is only that, just as the Internet has made it easier to publish think-pieces, it has made it much easier to publish jokes about them, too.

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

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