Maybe This Is Why Newspapers Lose Readers

By Mike Feinsilber

It just might be one reason newspapers lose readers is that they make themselves incomprehensible.  If you subscribed to a paper and it were written in Sanskrit, would you keep paying just for the comics?

Reporters who are on the beat too long start to think like their sources and, worse, to write in the language of their sources. The economics reporter quits thinking about lost jobs and writes about “the shrinking labor market.”

Maybe the solution would be to make the economics reporter switch beats with the guy who covers medical matters. Sure, you’d lose the expertise he’s picked up from listening to economists for 15 years but maybe he’ll explain, when writing about melanoma, that it is skin cancer.

Here’s what I mean:

# A Washington Post front page story reports that U.S. sun worshippers are denied the effectiveness of sunscreen commonly sold abroad because of a “regulatory morass.” It quotes the Melanoma Research Alliance without further explanation and forces the reader to go through 14 paragraphs and into the jump before the term “skin cancer” appears. The piece goes another 13 grafs without simply saying, except by implication, that exposure to sunlight can cause cancer and that sunscreen might prevent cancer.

# On the Economy & Business pages of the same issue of the Post we encounter a Reuters story: “All big banks but one pass Fed stress test.”

“All of the big banks except Zions Bancorp stayed above the 5 percent requirement for top-tier capital in the latest round of stress tests,” the article says. What’s top-tier capital? What’s a stress test?

“Banks had to show they would cope with a halving of the stock market, and the eight largest banks had to weigh the impact of the default of their biggest counterparty,” Reuters explains. Halving of the stock market? Counterparty?

# The country is trying to cope with an upheaval in the way it pays for health care, and the Post, in an earlier article, said enrolling under the Affordable Care Act is just one hurdle. A survey, the paper reported, suggests that a big challenge for the uninsured will be “understanding basic insurance terms.”

To drive that point home, the Post says only 78.4 percent of already insured adults aged 18 to 64 felt confident that they understood what “premium” means. Among the uninsured, only 43.2 percent know what “premium” is.  Substantial percentages of people, especially among the uninsured, had little confidence that they understood what “coinsurance,” “maximum annual out-of-pocket spending” or “excluded services” mean.

Knowing that large numbers of its readers were uncertain about what common insurance terms mean, you might think the Post would define the terms for its readers. You might think so, but you would be wrong.

# Even what used to be called the social pages can carry mysteries. The Sunday Styles section of the New York Times on 3/23/2014 carries a Vows announcement with this lead: “Christie Lauren Cunningham and Jonathan David McNeill were married Friday at their home in Philadelphia in a ceremony held under Pennsylvania’s self-uniting marriage statute.”

Self-uniting statute? That’s intriguing. Does the Times explain? Nope. (The name suggests one can marry oneself, but probably not, not even in Philadelphia.)
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.

Speak Your Mind