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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.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:19 PM | | Comments (9)
        

Comments

One of the most misunderstood ideas in Newspapers is the editorial. I doubt that most people understand that the editorial is uncredited and is supposed to be from the entire staff.

Is it possible there is a reader who would believe that an entire staff was required to produce some of the babble that passes for editorials?

Actually, the editorials reflect the collective wisdom of the editorial board, not of the entire staff of the paper.

One of my biggest complaints is the seemingly random use of acronyms in place of the entity, especially when the entity is not well known, or several can use the same or similar acronym.

Example: in an article about the False Claims Act, there is no '(FCA)' written after the word 'Act', but then suddenly, FCA appears in the article. You have to go back and search for the meaning (or possible meaning) of 'FCA'. There are other uses of the acronym 'FCA', such as 'Farm Credit Administration', 'Fellowship of Christian Athletes', 'Full Cost Accounting', etc.

The editorial board has wisdom? You could have fooled me. Seriously though, you are right to question a reader's knowledge of things like ledes, evergreens, or even the different parts of the newspaper. Your readers really don't know that the editorial board is entirely separate from the reporting staff and that in the olden days they even rode separate elevators. Considering the very liberal (and pro-O'Malley) stance of the editorial board, it would be wise to explain the difference to readers. Additionally, readers probably should know about column inches, budgets, and how so many stories have the information they think should be in the story but then the story is shortened. I'm not a reporter, but know enough about the field. Good blog post.

Here's a like-minded gem from today's wires:

"PITTSBURGH -- The director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Cancer Centers issued an advisory Wednesday to about 3,000 faculty and staff about possible health risks associated with cellular phone use."

I can see that adhering to a strict "who, what, when, where, why and how" format can lead you to stuff like that cell-phone lead above. As can trying to cram in as many details as possible. "Two University of Pittsburgh medical units issued and advisory to their staffs about possible health risks associated with..." would take care of you.

But trying to explain the news before you tell me what it IS makes me crabby too, and that's a common tactic writers use to keep leads from being so dense.


I also get tired of reading the same thing twice, when the lead is first summarized and then repeated w/ the details filled in--but no new action.

I'm probably not the typical reader, though. And it's not just because I work in publishing. It's because I have a very low tolerance for hot air. I hate most transitions, all "chatter" (which is why I *cannot* watch TV news).

My personal favorite is the tendency of some journalists to put days in the least convenient place possible in a sentence. For example, in a Daily Herald story where a number of Senators are mentioned, this paragraph appears:

"Thursday, Durbin, Bean, Foster, Manzullo and Roskam met with transportation board Vice Chairman Frank Mulvey to discuss the environmental impact study and upcoming public hearings."

I read it and started to go back through the story for this "Thursday" person before realizing the word referred to when the meeting happened.

Your remark about readers and datelines is interesting. When I worked for the South China Morning Post in the early 80s somebody decided that readers were not fussy about this point, so in order to simplify matters all datelines would be replaced with the name of the nearest big city which readers would have heard of.
This produced occasional geographical embarassments. Do you know the nearest city to Ouagadougou that readers will have heard of? My favourite, and rather frequent, snafu was failure to make consequential corrections to the story, so that a tale now datelined "New York" would include a reference to "... this little town of 700 souls on the bank of the Nowhere River."
We were also instructed, again with occasionally interesting results, that all international stories would in future be dated with the previous day's date, regardless of the one supplied by the agency.
It seemed to me that both of these practices were dishonest. It would have been more satisfactory to leave the dateline out altogether. I suppose the possibly serious point is that no doubt many readers do not understand our conventions or understand but do not care. Still, those who understand should not be misled.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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