A Designer's Guide to Patronising Media Organisations
TRIGGER WARNING: In this artilce I throw around terms like retard and moron in a manner that could only be described as willy-nilly. Don’t worry...it’s just me, a well-known moron and retard, trying to attract attention.
Fake news! Clickbait! Listen to any media commentator these days and you’d be forgiven if you thought that modern internet journalism is just a swirl of manipulative and idiotic stories that only appeal to moral and mental retards. They wonder where the good old days went. Days when journalists were from a noble breed that was only interested in truth and in-depth storytelling.
I’m not sure what all the fuss is about.
1999 - A group of senior journalists - and me - sit in a room with our new editor. He had the habit of eating sardine sandwiches for morning tea. The room smelled funky. The mood was grim.
“It's estimated that the average person has the reading age of a twelve year old. This average person is who we should be writing for.”
It takes balls to sit in a room full of grown-up journalists and tell them they will be writing for children from now on. Some would say it takes ignorance.
Not that the theory of writing “down” to your readers doesn't have validity in journalism. Readability is actually science that involves mathematical formulae and other gobbledygook. One well-known readability formula is actually named after gobbledygook.
Harry McLaughlin’s 1969 SMOG (Simple Measure of Gobbledygook) theory can be calculated thusly:
SMOG grading = 3 + √polysyllable count.
Where: polysyllable count = number of words of more than two syllables in a sample of 30 sentences.
Apparently the SMOG formula is useful when writing in the healthcare sector.
I think the general disdain that greeted the editor’s request to “dumb down” the newspaper's writing was based on cultural differences not the theory of readability. The editor was English and had travelled 12,000 miles to tell a room full of embittered and embattled kiwi journos how to suck eggs. He was also a bit of a dick.
A dick who had nevertheless just employed me to work in his recently acquired Warzone of Words. My job was to make his newspaper look pretty...and yes...be more readable.
The average reading age of the UK population is 9 years – that is, they have achieved the reading ability normally expected of a 9 year old. The Guardian has a reading age of 14 and the Sun has a reading age of 8.
Read more here
There is a whole lot of dodgy logic and no real attribution in the above paragraph, but newspapers have always known about readability and its close cuzzie legibility. Quantifying a reader’s ability by age is a pretty judgmental measure, but as a rough and insulting guide it did its job. Newspaper layout, editing and design was always a battle for the minds of the ignorant and more often than not, distractible or disabled reader. For years it was a battle that good newspaper editors, sub-editors and designers’ won.
Think about it.
The first and most important story on any page, especially the front page, has REALLY BIG WORDS THAT AREN'T VERY LONG. The font is often bold, black and narrow so that the words can be as big as possible.
This “lead” story often uses interesting words in its headline like: MURDER. BLOODY. DEATH. ABUSE. VICTIM. FRAUD. THIEVES.
This is known in the mainstream media as the “if it bleeds it leads” method of “selling the news”. If it were an internet headline that used the same technique we would call it clickbait and many traditional journalists would turn their noses up at it.
The first paragraph of any story should set the scene and encourage the most disinterested moron that the story is amazingly worthy of the reader’s time. Sometimes these paragraphs are in a font that is bigger than the rest of the story just to make sure it’s seen.
The rest of the story is generally short and edited to within a pica of its life by skilled practitioners - by Shakespearean standards a newspaper story is miniscule and to-the-point.
The modern newspaper is full of nice big colour pictures to invite readers to indulge. This is good because as everyone knows, a picture is worth a thousand words and a female tennis player in a short skirt shot from below will always be interesting.
But newspapers aren’t just designed for quick reads and easily digestible titbits. Their broad sheets and regular publishing schedule means that they are an effective way of telling complex and serialised stories too. They have it all covered.
This is slightly off-topic, but lets not forget cartoons. In the good old days, these things were the P-pipe of newspapers. Like peodophiles and lollies, newspaper cartoons were there to get the kids interested. It worked on me like a charm. I progressed from Peanuts to Tom Scott to front page murder stories without even noticing that I was being groomed.
This formula of catering to varying degrees of childlike or just easily manipulated readers was a very successful way of making money because newspapers also had loads of room for advertisements and LOTS of people bought them. They were so popular that they created many of the world’s wealthiest men (usually) and supported many families in all sorts of out of the way places...like Palmerston North where I worked at the Manawatu Standard.
But sadly, new tech, neglect and asset stripping by large, disinterested corporates has meant this great method of information-spreading is about to die. As a designer I’m a bit sad that good newspaper design has been replaced by its reprobate nephew, clickbait. But the news is still there, it just looks different and there’s more of it. Smartphone news is faster, cheaper, brighter and easier to distribute. It’s also generally given away for free. Why wouldn’t the readers of the world abandon the trusty newspaper for that?
The suspicion amongst those who supposedly know, is that because our own personal newsfeeds (Facebook, Twitter, Reddit) appeal to our basest instincts, we’re missing out on something. Decades of newsroom tradition are disappearing and we’ll lose the journalists who acted as our parents...our guardians. These professionals and the system they developed was the best way to choose, shape and present the truth to us in ways our child-like brains could best digest it. Surely, in a just world, this should still be so?
I’m not so sure it’s quite that bad. Yeah the modern world of news is riddled with “fake news” and clickbait, but wasn’t it always filled with that stuff? We used to call it propaganda and headlines. Hitler, Nixon and Muldoon all came to power when traditional news was supposedly pure. Rwanda’s genocide was fomented by good old-fashioned radio.
Politicians, business people and intelligence agencies have always manipulated the truth through the media. The only thing that has changed is that the business model has collapsed.
I’ve got a feeling that we’re confusing the end of that business model with the end of the truth. The truth is out there...it’s up to us as readers to find it. Perhaps we’re all a bit more grown up than the people that have always shaped our thoughts think we are.
Facebook has recently reacted to all the bad press about...ahem...bad press... by adjusting its algorithms to weed out fake news. Sadly for those who want to remain informed by using Facebook as a communal newsfeed, it looks like it will have the effect of weeding out traditional news organisations too. Brazil’s largest newspaper, the Folha de S Paulo, has just reacted to this “Real News” by abandoning Facebook as a distribution method.
Facebook’s gloriously patronising mathematical design solution to the problem of choosing how we see the news appears to be a panicked attempt to instill some maturity into the modern and chaotic news system.
Good luck with that.
Hmmm...should I have been so liberal in my use of words like moron and retard? In a vague attempt to justify it here's where I confess that I have classed myself as such for much of my life.
I may have been shy about my reading difficulties that day in the editor's office, but I'm usually a proud member of the illiterati because my life has been shaped by it. I didn't go to university because I couldn't read a textbook. I dropped out of art school (ART SCHOOL!) because, amongst other things, I had to write an essay that required reading to research it.
I love words and the world's they create or reflect. My problem is that I just can’t read many of them without great effort because I can't track across a page. The only reason that I’ll get through a book is if it’s a bloody good one that relaxes me...a ripping yarn that’s written for a 12 year old.
Interestingly this retardation - there, I've used the word again - isn't much of a problem when I read newspapers. Why? Their columns are narrow and its harder to lose track. This might be part of the reason that I have such a love for them...and like reading them on a phone where the columns are just as skinny.
NEXT TIME: I’m don’t know where these thoughts will take me, so we’ll just have to wait and see.
When I got my first job as a newspaper designer, the bromide room was a refuge from the non-stop sausage factory that the art department often was. This blog is a nod to the value of taking some time away from the drawing board to just take a breather. True, the air was full of toxic fumes, but the conversation was usually good.