Magazine article Editor & Publisher

A Sense of Order

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

A Sense of Order

Article excerpt

Picture one of your readers at the breakfast table. He takes a sip of coffee, picks up your paper and wades into a front-page story.

The headline and play tell him the story's important, but he can't figure out what's significant about the information in the lead. He forges on anyway. The second and third paragraphs confuse him even more. He starts to simmer.

By the time he's eight inches into the story, he's even more confused. He finally boils over, throws the paper aside, reaches across the table to the kitchen TV and flips on Good Morning, America. Joan Lunden makes a lot more sense than what you have to offer.

As readers, we've all been there, wrapped in the rising frustration that flows from a confusing news story. "So what's the point," we say to ourselves. "Why should I care?"

Given enough frustration, readers will toss their newspapers aside permanently. Modern life is too busy and offers too many options to put up with news that produces more upset than understanding.

So caring about our readers means taking special care to present information in its most digestible form.

Readers should have the information they need to understand every item in the newspaper as they encounter it.

That means no headscratching because they missed a critical bit of background that appeared in another story on an earlier day.

And it also means they shouldn't have to keep one confusing thought in mind while they search through a story to uncover the added information that explains it.

In other words, information should appear in logical order. That's a question of sequencing, and poor sequencing is one of the main sources of confusion in American newswriting.

Take the story my paper recently ran on the murder of a suburban teenager whose body turned up in a seamy part of downtown.

The first seven inches of the story described the girl as a paragon of adolescent virtue. Then came the puzzling revelation that her mother hadn't seen her for a month. Then came the critical information: The girl was a chronic runaway with an alcohol problem.

Or consider the wire story, from several months back, about a confrontation between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and a crowd of West Bank Jews.

Six inches of story detailed the ruckus, but failed to explain why the settlers were angry. …

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