Don’t You Hate It When Writers Try to be Your Best Friend?

By Jack Limpert

Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak, this morning trying to beat readers into submission with this fusillade of false intimacy:

“We can’t look away when bad things happen to rich people….No wonder we’re riveted….We want to know just as badly as the police….We shouldn’t place more value on a life if the victim was pretty or wealthy or white….But our curiosity always gets the best of us when tragedy goes upscale….If only we weren’t always scraping by and worrying about money….If only we won the lottery, we’d be happy….If only we were rich, our problems would go away….But we already knew that, right?”

As I’ve said before, on mornings when Post writers suggest the writer and reader are a happy couple talking to one another, I can’t help but replay the old Lone Ranger joke: “The Lone Ranger and Tonto find themselves staring up at canyon walls filled with hostile Indian warriors. The Lone Ranger turns to Tonto, his Indian scout, and says, “What do we do now, Tonto?” Tonto says, “What do you mean we, Kemosabe?”

The biggest problem with the Post’s continued overuse of the “we” construction is that the paper has close to 400,000 daily circulation, with maybe twice that many readers, and only a small number may feel all that much close kinship with any Post writer.

At the Washingtonian, I almost always edited out the “we” approach. When I was there, we had 150,000 circulation and 400,000 readers and the basic strategy of a metro daily or metro magazine is to appeal to a broad range of readers—young, old, urban, suburban, liberal, conservative. What Washingtonian readers had in common was a college degree and many had a good income. We wanted all those readers but we knew that there are lots of different kinds of smart people in Washington.

The downside of the “we” approach for mainstream publications is that it can turn off readers. I always want to tell Post columnists don’t assume we’re pals and I want you to do my thinking for me. It’s even worse when a writer suggests that if I’m reading this story we must share a common love for something. At that point I think this publication is aimed at somebody but it’s not me and why am I reading it.

The “we” approach can work if you’re writing for, say, the Washington City Paper—its audience is young and urban and the writer and reader probably do like a lot of the same things. And many websites are targeted at a narrow audience—the editor is using a rifle approach, not a shotgun approach, to get readers.

But the Washington Post has a lot of different kinds of readers and when its writers try to create the Petula Dvorak kind of false intimacy, I’m with Tonto.

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