When the Cognoscenti Write for the Connoisseurs

By Mike Feinsilber

Newspapers are hemorrhaging readers and don’t know what to do about it. I have an idea: Try simple English.

I can understand, sort of, why I can’t understand everything I read in the financial pages or the sports pages or the style sections. But I can’t understand why I often can’t understand what I read on the front page. Page one is supposed to be the newspaper’s public square, the piazza where everyone can gather.

But often page one is written by the cognoscenti for the connoisseurs. The rest of us—the readers—are left to guess.

A case in point. My breakfast table companion tried to read a story on the May 3rd front page of the Washington Post and gave up: “I can’t make sense out of this story.”

Here’s the headline that stymied her–and me:

Ex-Federal agent works to keep MMA fighters clean

That doesn’t reveal much, but surely the drop head—the smaller headline that adds detail—will.

Novitzky, once the face
Of BALCO probe, looks
To curb drug use in UFC

What’s MMA? What’s BALCO? What’s UFC?

Turns out, upon painstaking reading, this was a story about a man —“the nation’s top steroid cop”—who shot “big stars out of the sky” by detecting athletes who took performance-enhancing drugs. MMA turns out to be mixed martial arts, though what that is one is left alone to ponder. UFC is explained deep in the story as a “mixed martial arts promotional entity.”

Was I supposed to know that?

Now that I do, I offer what could have been a more understandable headline:

He brought down drug cheaters in baseball and biking, now has turned to martial arts

Clear but enticing headlines are tough to write, especially in the Post given its headline font, as I growled in an April 23rd piece, “This Headline Made Me Spill My Coffee,” on this blog.

But that difficulty doesn’t excuse writers who have enough space to make themselves clear. The NNA-BALCO-UFC puzzler occupied 62 inches in the print edition of the Post.

Want some irony with this rant?

In the Post’s same May 3rd edition, the Style section carried a piece chiding politicians for salting their speeches with the “jargon-filled playbookese” of their campaign aides. Its headline:

There ain’t
No cure for
The wonky talk blues

Washington Post: read thyself, heed thyself. If you want to keep readers, make yourself more readable.
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Mike Feinsilber spent  a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach.

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