Unreadable newspapers

Every copy editor worth his/her salt stands guard against unreadable text. Whenever they get the feedback that some column inches are unreadable, they leap into action. They see if the piece begins with a hook. They check whether the article is factual and informative. The red flags words with three or four syllables that reduce the Flesch readability score. They go over the wording and sentence structure for grammatical errors. They restore the adherence to consensual rules of readable text.

As I've deeply pondered why newspapers are waning and what changes are on the horizon, I've arrived at a different scorecard for readability. I'm proposing that media-savvy citizens already evaluate text along these lines. They're finding newspapers to be unreadable for very different reasons than copy editors do. Here's a first pass at how Journalism 2.0 may assess unreadability:
  • Too informative: Provides too much information as if the readers are supposed to feel like they're drinking from a fire hose.
  • Too factual: Makes a thing of objectivity as if that is not imposing a dominant narrative and devaluing subjective frames of reference.
  • Too superficial: Dwells on what happened instead of the patterns that lead up to it and the reasons it could happen again.
  • Too newsy: Fixates on breaking developments in an unfolding story without regard to making it worse by covering it.
  • Too eager to blame individuals: Seeks to hold individuals responsible for actions rather than systems, communities and interdependencies.
  • Too contemporary: Reports on what just happened instead of what always happens and historical precedents that say "here we go again".
  • Too reactive: Fusses about covering the story accurately instead of proactively changing the story's outcome by intervening in it.
I'm suggesting that incumbent news organizations cannot go there. Because of the ways they have succeeded as a profession for centuries, there's no way they could possibly be too newsy, contemporary or factual. In their minds, these "unreadability criteria" are essential to their time-honored value proposition. These are valued qualities where one "cannot have too much of a good thing". There's no way that news coverage could be toxic, contributing to value destruction or unreadable by being overdone, too good or too focused. They will persist with their convictions until the last reader unsubscribes.

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