Monday, July 16, 2012

Hey, News Writers: Make The Turn

Recently at a client station cluster where a TV station news staff is tasked with writing news for all radio, online and video news, I was asked to talk to a terrific co-host of the top 40 morning team.

Part of her gig is reading a quick update every half hour and everyone (including her!) is concerned about reading errors being made in these segments of the show where she's executing every other aspect of her role almost perfectly.

The PD confessed that he knows next to nothing about news writing or reporting and feels like he doesn't know what to tell her, given that all other aspects of work work are exemplary, including the ratings of the morning show.

I asked her to play me a sample air check of a typical 'cast where she wished she had done a better job of reading.

She knew exactly what to play for me:  "the 44-year old man was killed in the accident, police say, because he had difficulty negotiating the turn.."

What caused her reading of that story to be less than natural and conversational, she said, was because she got to thinking in mid-sentence that perhaps a better word than "negotiating" and wondered if "navigating" was the correct word.

Of course, I told her that if she wanted to think about things like that it needed to be done when she pre-read the stories in advance and encouraged her to prep better so that things didn't catch her by surprise.

Ultimately, just between us, I actually blame the person who wrote the story even more.
  • "44-year old" is newspaper style writing.  Archaic. Does giving the age increase or decrease the power of the lead?
  • "Police say" isn't really needed is it?  The guy is dead.  If there's any doubt, of course, attribute it, but if not, why use the old wire service style of writing when you know someone really was prounced dead and relatives have been notified.  
  • "Negotiating/navigating?"  Rather than trying to show off your fancy reading vocabulary, how about simply writing to be "heard" and "read."
Better, shorter, crisper (and easier to read):  "Man dies when he failed to make the turn."

A note to news writers and all of the people who have to read their output:  if the youngest person on your staff - who happens to be right in the center of the target of your radio station - can't easily read and understand every story, how do you expect listeners to?

Make the turn.

Simplify your news writing.  Lower the grade level of what you write.  Simple sentences.  Short phrases, like telegrams.  Powerful, active verbs.

It's not about dumbing down your news.  It's about making it appeal to a larger audience.


Buzz Jackson said...

You should do a contest to see who can write the shortest headline and still keep the gist of the story. For example, I'm sure there's someone who can write it shorter than I did: "Man dead in car wreck."

The winner gets a case of notoriety.

Steve Jones said...

I've been dealing with this issue for a while.

Came up with a writing style I've called "Effect/Cause" that I share with our news teams.

Basically reversed the usual "cause and effect" relationship and puts the effect on the listener first, in one sentence. Then the cause... also one sentence. Then the next story... rinse and repeat.