Be clear, concise and cogent
Mr. Sundberg, my seventh-grade history teacher, always exhorted us to be “clear, concise and cogent.” In those pre-SAT days, none of us actually knew what “cogent” meant (okay, so I didn’t know what cogent meant), but we caught his drift, and that advice has stood me in good stead all these years.
A couple weeks ago, I posted about the Christian Science Monitor discontinuing its daily print format. I referred to a New York Observer article, which — together with many other outlets including yesterday’s Short Stack — incorrectly stated that the print edition was folding entirely. Actually, the CSM will still be available in print on a weekly basis. (Thanks to Alice from Amacom for pointing out the mistake.) But that got me thinking: why was the original story misreported? By almost everybody? Including a former CSM editor? Cue Mr. Sundberg. Here are some quotes I pulled from the beginning of the CSM article.
“The Christian Science Monitor plans major changes in April 2009 that are expected to make it the first newspaper with a national audience to shift from a daily print format to an online publication that is updated continuously each day.
The changes at the Monitor will include enhancing the content on CSMonitor.com, starting weekly print and daily e-mail editions, and discontinuing the current daily print format.”
Obviously, the CSM was trying to give the announcement a positive spin (a groundbreaking move by a national newspaper) rather than a negative one (another newspaper folding). Unfortunately, that message got lost. People read between the lines — and reported that yet another newspaper is folding — while simultaneously ignoring the fact that a weekly print edition will still be available. Wouldn’t it have been faster — and less complicated — to say that the daily paper would be replaced by a weekly, with content available online?
“… an online publication that is updated continuously each day.”
Really? Do you know of a news site that is *not* updated continuously each day? (Maybe they felt the distinction had to be made since the print edition will now be a weekly, but again, a simpler way to state the facts would have been to say the print edition would summarize the online news.)
Even the headline was confusing: “Monitor shifts from print to Web-based strategy”
What exactly is a “Web-based strategy”? A fancy term for online?
Apparently the CSM wasn’t so clear, concise and cogent. What Mr. Sundberg couldn’t have predicted, but as celebrities — and Sarah Palin — have quickly learned, information spreads far and wide in the age of the Internet. Errors (or misinterpretations) are magnified. Forget the corrections column — once a story has been reported online, there’s no way to control how many times it gets repeated or linked to.
What this story shows us is how important it is to be clear and direct. Quick and easy is important when peoples’ attention spans last through text message and tweet but not much longer. Even in the pre-cell phone days when I was a News Editor at my college newspaper, I read press releases by the trash. I’d grab the mail, head for the nearest garbage can and read — make that skim — the first paragraphs of releases. Anyone who took too long to get to the point — or whose language required more than a skim to understand — never made it. As it is, there are so many books and book publicists, there’s no way journalists can pay attention to all of us even if they want to. There’s certainly no need to make it easier for them to ignore us.