Readers -- who needs 'em?
There has been considerable commentary, much of it mocking, about a widely circulated memo from Lee Abrams, the Tribune Company’s chief innovation officer, that said, in part, that it wasn’t clear that a Baghdad dateline on an article meant that a reporter was actually writing from Baghdad.
I think that many of the comments missed the point. The point worth addressing is not whether Mr. Abrams is a naïve reader, but whether we write in newspapers for ourselves or for our readers.
The dateline convention — that a location given at the beginning of an article signals that the reporting was done from that place — is a convention that all journalists know and assume that all readers also know. Do they? Are we sure? Have we asked? Follow the Leno pattern and go Jay-walking with some civilians. You may be in for a surprise.
Copy editors were in for surprises for several years past as Alex Cruden, late of the Detroit Free Press, conducted panel sessions with readers — civilians, sometimes lifelong readers of newspapers and sometimes non-readers of newspapers — at journalism conferences and seminars. A number of our familiar headline-writing conventions, including the substitution of a comma for the word and, turned out to be things that some readers did not pick up. (Oh, by the way, obvious puns and tiresome wordplay don’t impress readers much. Just saying.)
Consideration, or lack of it, for the audience extends into the text, which is often written in a stilted, formulaic sub-dialect of standard written English that sounds like nothing a non-journalist human being would ever speak or write. Paula LaRocque went on the road to journalism conferences with a dialogue mocking this lingo. Here’s a snippet:
Frack: We had wide-ranging weather all season. One storm dumped more than seven inches of rain on our densely wooded lot, spawning hurricane-force winds and golfball-sized hail. Plus an unprecedented number of visitors arrived amid the facility restoration.
Hack: My, that must have sparked burgeoning confusion and decimated your plans for restoring your vacation site to a state-of-the-art facility. Was it sort of a defining moment?
Frack: It spurred a major shift in sleeping arrangements, triggered sweeping changes in the menu, and fueled a personal economic crunch.
Hack: What a chilling effect! How long were you beleaguered by this worst-case scenario?
Real-life examples, though less amusing, abound. At Common Sense Journalism, Doug Fisher, visiting his son in Arkansas, picks up with tongs this opening paragraph from the Arkansas Democrat Gazette:
LITTLE ROCK — Secretary of State Charlie Daniels on Monday certified for the Nov. 4 ballot Lt. Gov. Bill Halter’s proposal to amend the state constitution to allow state lotteries.
As Professor Fisher points out, the first 18 words of this 27-word narcotic tell the reader absolutely nothing about the point of the story, the possibility of a state lottery. The writer and editor (and copy editor, assuming that he or she hadn’t been gagged) presumed that the reader would see a purely technical, procedural matter to be the part of the story had had to be told most immediately.
We do that a lot in the business. We don’t get to the point quickly enough. And we obscure the point with bureaucratic language or, when we essay a little fancy writing, with self-indulgent, cliched anecdotes.
As one of our editors at The Sun pointed out recently, readers inside the paper don’t read it the same way that the customers do. We are so inured to these conventions that we seldom even perceive them, much less challenge them — all the while marveling that fewer and fewer people show any interest in reading newspapers.