Bewildered Readers Demand: Bring Back the Frandsen Graf

By Mike Feinsilber

It was called “the Frandsen graf”—Frandsen being Julius Frandsen, its inventor and enforcer at the UPI bureau in Washington, and “graf” being newsbiz shorthand for “paragraph.” Frandsen was the Washington manager at UPI and the boss. He was a vice president of the company so, inevitably, he was known as “the resident vice president.”  He was a nice guy, a Unipresser for 35 years.

The Frandsen graf was simplicity itself. When a staffer wrote a term that might be unfamiliar to many readers—and especially when the term was central to the story—the writer was obliged to make the next paragraph, and not some graf deep in the story, explain the term.

The rationale that Mr. Frandsen followed was (1) we want people to read our stories, (2) people quit reading stories they don’t understand so (3) explain yourself.

In teaching newcomers to the bureau, old-timers illustrated the use of the Frandsen graf by citing parity. When I joined the Washington bureau in 1968, UPI served many small town papers so the farm bill was a big deal. Congress was forever tinkering with parity so a story about the farm bill had to stop as soon as parity entered and the next graf had to start: “Parity is. . .”  (As I recall, parity was a Depression-born device to maintain farmers’ purchasing power regardless of the vagaries of the prices they got for their crops.)

Well, the Frandsen graf is disappearing from newspapers and, almost certainly, you won’t often find it on the internet. An 18-graf story in the Wall Street Journal the other day concerned changes in index funds without a paragraph starting, “An index fund is. . .” The writer did make a third paragraph stab at what might have been a Frandsen graf. But read it: “Index funds aim to provide exposure to the performance—or beta—of any market.”

What would Mr. Frandsen say about that?

An 11-graf story in the Washington Post was headlined “For drivers using Google Glass, fines may come into view” without a stab at explaining what Google Glass is.

The newspapers are full of stories whose writers assume you and everyone else understands what they are talking about. The business pages, the sports pages, the culture pages especially are reluctant to make it clear what they are talking about. In doing so, they become elitists, insiders talking to insiders. They forfeit the newspaper’s traditional role of serving as the town square, where everyone can understand everyone.

Could that be one reason why, according to the Newspaper Association of America, three out of 10 Americans do not “read newspaper media content in print or on line in a typical week or access it on mobile devices in a typical month”?

Mike Feinsilber spent about a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and about a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach. He was a deskman, reporter, and editor, and he covered Congress and 18 political conventions.

Comments

  1. Tom Shales says

    Today’s young “writers” don’t care about clarity. They care about “expressing themselves.” News columns more inundated than ever with the arcane, obscure & simply incomprehensible — but we readers are simply UNCOOL if we can’t find our ways through with no help……

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