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November 05, 2005

Newspapers’ worst episode ever 

There are some entries floating about the blogosphere on the fall of newspapers. Comments have included attacks on poor standards, and the failure of to adapt to a more era. I offer another explanation, since I know many good, frustrated journalists whose pieces are : the fact that eight to eleven are the ages that the reading level is set at, depending on nation.
   My work at Lucire shows that you can target a 30-year-old’s reading level, and assume intelligence. Too many of my colleagues in the media have forgotten that the public prefers to be treated as intelligent creatures with fully functioning brains. Now, who wants to deal with a which assumes you are thick?
   It comes back to reciprocating respect, something that some newspaper are incapable of doing. The lesson extends to all , in all sectors—but particularly poignant in an era of a few rotten eggs being exposed for fictionalizing and . Newspapers are an easy target given the age of their brands and their traditions (the older the brand, the easier the target when things go wrong, because it is more identifiable)—but they do highlight a lot of what has been going wrong.
I don't believe it's fair to say that journalists "have forgotten that the public prefers to be treated as intelligent creatures with fully functioning brains."

A general-interest publication has to respect its readers, but its writers shouldn't assume too much -- particularly that readers will have previous familiarity with whatever it is they're writing about today. If you're covering a court case, you can't assume everyone's read every story you've done on it up until today. You can't assume they know how the legislative process at city hall works. You can't assume they know which countries neighbour Iraq, or what the difference is between a Sunni and a Shi'ite, or why it matters. (Not that every journalist does, of course.)

Less-than-perfectly-informed is not the same as stupid, but given limited space in a newspaper, they have to be treated more or less the same way. You've got to lay groundwork again and again, every time you publish.

Also, targeting a certain reading level (I think it's more likely to be between eighth and eleventh grades, rather than between ages eight and eleven) isn't the same thing as targeting that level of education, critical reasoning, or historical awareness. Using simple words doesn't necessarily mean you're dealing in simple concepts.

That said, I do think most newspapers are getting more superficial, rather than less. It's a natural inclination for a corporation -- when your profit margins are slipping, reduce your quality -- but when you're selling what's fundamentally an intellectual product, following that inclination means starting a death spiral. You'll lose what should be your most devoted customers first.  
Thank you for your feedback, FYJ. The distinction you make is important and it’s one I largely agree with: of course a court reporter (using your example) should not presume the reader understands the niceties of the law. However, I notice there is enough superficiality in today’s newspapers that presume some level of stupidity, particularly in areas away from “hard news” (e.g. lifestyle, human interest).
   Perhaps this is still a national thing—generally I find articles in your country better written than the pieces from New Zealand, where I am as I write this. You can still count the number of days I spent in Canada using your fingers, so I hardly come from an informed perspective—other than reading articles online from your nation.
   The eight- to eleven-year-old comment is, sadly, directly from journalists ordered to do that by editors; I realize this is your field, too, but perhaps Canada has a higher standard? The younger age was told to me by an American reporter; the older one was from a New Zealand counterpart.
   And sadly, I do see this reflected here in journalists’ or editors’ presumption of a reader’s education, reasoning and historical awareness—regardless of the section the articles appear in.
   I am totally with you on your conclusion. This was why I stopped subscribing to newspapers in 1993. The lack of in-depth research and a relative absence of international stories—it got as far as a third of a page in The Dominion—turned me well off. The sad thing was that the effort wasn’t invested into a strong local coverage, either: replace journalist with press release regurgitator or sycophant and you would come close to what I saw in the early 1990s.  
I dont think freedom of speech exists in journalism any more, anywhere that mass audiences still reach. My father's last column in his seventies was called Heresies a topic he is a globalisation leader at raising revolutionary questions around - see his 70s and 80s adventures in this. But all his best questions were sub-edited out in case they angered advertisers.

Of course we welcome sightings of all journalists who breakthorough with human contexts they care so much about that they rise above the media system's dumbing down prejudices  
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