Student guest blog post: Is news writing ready to graduate from junior high?

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the seventh of those posts. Andrew Murray is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in editing and graphic design. He loves hockey, English football (soccer to most of you), and as an ex-chef, food. He’s figuring out how to use his soon-to-be journalism degree in one of them.

Every Wednesday afternoon in Seattle, a handful of white vans descend upon the city to fill newspaper boxes and racks with warm bundles of The Stranger, an alternative weekly that dubs itself “Seattle’s Only Newspaper.” Usually within minutes, well over half of each allotment has been snapped up by passers-by and nearby business owners and employees.

By the way the public clamors for it, you would think it really was Seattle’s only newspaper. And there’s a reason for that.

The Stranger treats its readers like they’re part of a club. As if the business of media wasn’t actually a business at all, but was instead concerned with the sharing of information in a way that made people want to read it, maybe even have to read it.

Some of the way they accomplish this is by doing an outstanding job of creating coverage that feels like it was actually written by fellow residents of the great city. Their peers, people who know the city, not the cold soulless journalism machines that too many universities, editors and media organizations have pumped out or molded over the years.

Their coverage creates a mutual understanding of the internal machinations of the city on all levels, from politics to arts and entertainment to the police department, and so on. Contained within that great coverage is the ability to tell the story in a way that effectively gets the information across in an engaging, enjoyable and educational way. They don’t “cookie cut” the news, and they don’t dumb it down, which is often the case.

One of the first things we were told in in our News Writing classes was that the general rule was to assume we were writing stories for an audience with an eighth-grade education. That we as writers or editors must always account for the lowest common denominator and take care to not write over the reader’s head. That we are always trying to reach as wide an audience as possible, especially if writing for a print media that continues its dance with death.

And there is a part of me that can understand that. But there is also a big part of me that sees the role of media as a form of continuing education and the eighth-grade level we’ve settled for is far too low.

In most cases, the audience we write for has varying levels of education and intelligence. What writing at an eighth-grade level does is, intentionally or not, lump them all together into a mass of junior high school brains and is extremely patronizing. It also gives writers every chance to think of their audience as stupid, which can then lead to condescension and will ultimately torpedo readership.

One of my favorite things to do while reading is to learn new words. I love to be able to finish a book and have picked up 10 or more words that I wasn’t familiar with when I embarked on the journey, or to pick up one or two in a well-written article. I view new words as more ammo for my arsenal, and I don’t have a problem turning to my dictionary to learn something new.

When done appropriately in news writing, however, people should be able to infer the meaning from context — no condescending explanation required. This requires a little more work on the writer’s part but as journalists, our prose and command of the English language should certainly be a portion of what sets us apart from the average writer, especially now at a time when the barriers to entry in the news spreading business are as low as they’ve ever been.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that perfectly good “regular” words be replaced by unnecessarily complex words. I don’t need to see the word  “synecdoche” crammed into a sentence because the writer has some sort of inferiority complex. But I do believe the writer needs to be able to use the words they’re most comfortable with, lest the writing becomes a chore.

We’re told that in this “world of distractions,” we as writers/editors need to keep things simple to make sure readers can quickly and easily get the information they need and move on. And in some cases this is absolutely true. In a hard news story about a plane crash, simplicity and frankness should be your guide.

But I do believe there is room for a higher level of writing in most other forms of news writing, and it is in part because of this “world of distractions” that I believe this. I often want something a little meatier and complex to draw me away from those distractions, even if it’s just for five or 10 minutes while I’m on the train to work. I like being pleasantly surprised by a nice piece of writing about economics or politics or sports. The goal should be to write the best story you can in both message and style.

Now, the example of an alternative weekly that I used is obviously a bit different. Weeklies definitely have more leeway to write as they see fit because the content and the target audience is usually much more narrow than your average major media outlet. They can cater to their readership much more and they are rarely if ever writing hard immediate news stories.

But I believe there are some lessons in style that can be learned by both print and online sources from the alternative format. I believe there is still some room for the human element in average news writing so that the word “average” and “news writing” can be separated for good.

Perhaps rather than writing for the lowest common denominator, we should be bringing them up to, say, the 12th-grade level? Because if you’re the print media, what exactly do you have to lose?