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Coming to grips with readability myths.

Two of the fables continuing to bug editorial writers today are, first, editorial pages have poor readability and are ignored by all but older readers and second, editorial pages lack relevance for readers, particularly younger ones seduced by the broadcast media.

Much of this mythology has been promulgated in part by other journalists ranging from H.L. Mencken to more modern professional curmudgeons shooting shotgun anecdotes wildly at the Fog-indexed bogeymen of the past, while aiming over the post-World War II improvements and newer problems that still exist today because of publishers, not editorial writers.

A review of studies and surveys as well as observations from recent textbooks on editorial writing suggests that the problem of low editorial-page readership and relevancy exists more in the minds of the critics and in the offices of owners and ill-informed outsiders than on the editorial pages.

To counter some of the complaints, the studies show that bolder, more flexible typography, layout, and other devices coupled with the letters-to-the-editor columns as well as the popular barkers and sideshow acts of political cartoons and columnists continue to attract general readers. Other studies show that rather than being dull, many editorial pages have the best writing in the newspaper because of an experienced staff that is getting slightly younger than those in the past.

Significantly, today's editorial writers may be an important factor in attracting younger readers back to the much maligned pages. A 1984 study conducted in Ohio showed that although older persons are more likely to read a newspaper and the editorial pages, the need to read newspapers is greatest among younger persons.

The study suggests that newspapers ought to concentrate on doing the job they do best - presenting news and analysis - and eschewing the broader, perhaps more superficial approach, which may be more typical of television.

Change stimulated in 1920s

Although many of the Mencken-like charges against editorial pages have some basis in the badness of the past, both technology and economic competitiveness forced slow changes to start in the pre-World War II period. Ironically, a strong impetus for change came from the new medium of radio as well as the interpretive publications such as Time, born in 1923.

Some idea of the public demand for analysis and interpretation may be seen in the remarks of noted radio commentator H. V. Kaltenborn about an August 1939 survey by Fortune magazine asking the question: "If you heard conflicting versions of the same story from these sources, which would you be most likely to believe?" The results stressed that not only were broadcast commentators being taken seriously but so were editorialists, as seen in the following percentages:
Radio press bulletin 22.7%
Radio commentator 17.6%
Authority, you heard speak 13%
Newspaper editorial 12%
Newspaper news item 11.1%
Newspaper columnist 3.4%
"Don't know" or "depends" 19.8%

The public's need for editorial pages to explain what all the blooming, buzzing confusion meant was further emphasized by Allen Barth, editorial writer for the Washington Post, in a 1946 article in the American Mercury.

"There is an indubitable hunger for editorial comment among newspaper readers," Barth wrote. "This is reflected at once in the immense popularity of the columnists and in the readership accorded such editorial fare as the newspapers now offer."

Equally as important as the visual and opinionated pictorial or print outlook of popular or savaging personalities however, are the anonymous, third-person editorials. They continue to attract as well as to anger large numbers of readers - as another post-World War II survey conducted by the Advertising Research Foundation suggests.

"There are remarkable disparities among newspapers with respect to the readership their editorials secure," the survey said. "Only 17% of the men and 9% of the women read so much as a single editorial in the newspaper, which had the lowest score in this category among 72 newspapers. But the figures for the paper with the highest score were: men, 73%; women, 51%."

The reasons are pretty plain, Barth concludes, with suggestions about improved readership: "Editorial pages which offer genuinely substantial fare need not worry about reader appetite.... Every editor who takes a firm and disinterested stand on public issues, who speaks forthrightly, yet in reasoned terms, about matters which genuinely touch the lives of his readers, finds testimonials to their interest in the morning mail."

Benchmark events in 1947

Two other events helped make the editorial page more vital for its readers - two events that serve as benchmarks for the transformation from the more staid, conservative editorial pages of pre-World War II to the more appealing pages of today. Both took place in 1947.

The first was the inauguration of the National Conference of Editorial Writers. The second was the Hutchins Commission report criticizing the press for a number of faults, including failure to provide an adequate forum for the exchange of comment and criticism.

In part, because of this pair of external and internal stimuli, many of the elite newspapers began to change formats, improve their readability, and set higher standards for the rest of the newspaper business. A 1990 study by NCEW member Ernest C. Hynds of the University of Georgia looking at The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times from 1955 to 1985 concludes that in the cases of three highly regarded newspapers, at least, editorials tended to be shorter and less likely to use the editorial "we."

"The three newspapers have significant differences ... but many similarities," Hynds wrote. "The editorial writers are confronting local and state as well as national and international topics. They are dealing with fewer issues each day but taking more stands and making better presentations. They are making greater use of argumentative devices such as evidence and greater use of writing devices such as argumentation, explanation and description to present them more effectively."

The roots of the changes in the post-World War II editorial pages may also be traced to the 1949 repeal of the Mayflower Act and the return of editorial opinion to the airwaves. This repeal met an important public need that characterized the 1930s and challenged newspaper conservatism and blandness.

NCEW member Kenneth Rystrom calls attention to two studies made 20 years apart showing that readers have found editorials easier to understand than news stories. Professor Galen R. Rarick, who did the second study, speculated that the apparent anomaly occurred partly because most editorial writers have been in the writing business longer than most reporters. Another reason is that news writers may be better at reporting and investigating than at writing. Editorial writers also have a longer time to rewrite and polish their products than most reporters, and so should produce better writing.

Another anecdotal example of this can be seen in the comments of Jacqueline Thomas, associate editor of the Detroit Free Press, in a suggestion printed in the 1990 ASNE Proceedings, that news reporters can learn from editorial page writers. As one newsroom editor told her: "The best reporting on the Detroit public schools for a good while was appearing on the Free Press editorial page."

"Eventually, it occurred to the news department that it was time to do something about that," Thomas said. "We intend to keep up that healthy rivalry because it is really the only way for an editorial page to have impact. It must keep pushing."

Along with the insights from Rystrom, Thomas, and Rarick, Francis P. Locke questions the overemphasis of readability formulas stressed by Rudolph Flesch, which emphasizes shorter sentence length and the use of shorter words. In an article titled "Too much Flesch on the bones," Locke argues that simplification can be overdone and that editorial page readers are not necessarily chased away by using more involved writing to interpret complex ideas. Brevity and clarity are important. But despite the black and white created by TV and the colorful world of Disneyland and USA Today, many readers still accept the challenge of lengthy editorials.

More recently, Katherine C. McAdams has challenged the traditional methods of gauging readability. In a 1993 article she observes that when Fog indexes first came on the scene, news consumers had only the newspaper. But today, there are many options and competing demands. Old definitions of readability assume a degree of reader commitment that no longer exists, she writes in Newspaper Research Journal. Simplicity may characterize good writing, but it is not enough to motivate readers.

Editorial pages reasonably well-read

At the very least, studies indicate, editorial page readability is no worse than other sections of the paper. A 1981 study of readability of 21 newspapers by Guido Stempel found that they were all difficult to read, judging by their scores on Flesch readability indexes. Stempel concluded that dense prose dominated all six categories of news that he examined: editorial, national, local, sports, lifestyle, and editorial.

A 1992 study by Belden Associates showed that the editorial section was well read. Nearly half of weekday readers regularly read editorial pages, about the same proportion as those reading comics, food, and sports.

In his analysis of more than 80 opinion pieces dating from 1754 to 1990, William David Sloan concludes that like news stories, "Most editorials are read one day and forgotten the next." He mentions that two of the major problems he noticed in reading Pulitzer Prize editorials in this century were "dullness and lack of unity."

Orlando Sentinel editor John Haile cites still another problem in a review of Pulitzer Prize entrees: Despite the fact that editorials were finely tuned, precisely worded, and meticulously edited, they were void of passion.

A lack of passion and stylistic problems as well as political conservatism may frighten judges, but not necessarily readers. In addition, the state of editorial writing today is not as politically bleak as Mencken, Virginius Dabney, and others painted it in the mid-1940s.

Sloan writes: "The influence that the business character of newspapers has exerted on editorial writing has been balanced by the professionalization of the field. Conservative editorial pages are balanced by liberal ones and today the standardization of journalism ideology now poses a greater threat to open inquiry than political ideology does. Personal editors did not vanish in the 20th century, and at no other time in history have there been so many polished editorial writers as today."

In his textbook, Sloan argues that editorial writing today has "substantial talent practicing the craft" as well as institutions supporting and encouraging it.

"While it is true that even some contest winners are stupendously dull, even superficial, and that most newspapers editorials are considerably less interesting than readers' letters to their editors, it nevertheless is true that there is a substantial group of editorial writers who do a fine job," Sloan says.

In response to broadbrush attacks on the editorial page as a prime factor in turning people away from newspapers, NCEW member Dennis Ryerson in the 1990 ASNE Proceedings referred to a Knight-Ridder survey that showed those with a real sense of connection to their community are almost twice as likely to be regular readers. "What better opportunity do we have than on our editorial pages to build that connection with communities and with our newspapers?" he asks.

Ryerson concluded: "In too many cases, it is almost as if we have concluded that editorial pages by their very nature cannot attract or keep readers, and we expect them to be dull. I just do not think this happens to be the case.

"I urge publishers and editors to take a look at the roadblocks they put in front of their editorial pages, to look at their own expectations for the pages, and then to look at the hiring they are doing to see if it matches what they really want to do with the editorial pages.

"Do not ignore the pages; recognize them as an opportunity to distinguish newspapers from other forms of communication."

NCEW member Alf Pratte is an associate professor of communications at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
COPYRIGHT 1995 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Pratte, Alf
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Mar 22, 1995
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