Victims of Fog Creep

What's With the Newspapers?

BEGINNING around 1964, the circulations of the daily newspapers in the U.S. began steadily to decline at a compound rate of approximately half a percent per year. Every year, the reaction of most of the publishers was to state that the decline was a short-term trend that would soon reverse.

But by 1999 the rate of decline began to accelerate. Daily newspapers began to have annual reductions of one to two percent. Publishers were quick to blame the Web and the free online publishing of the newspapers' stories. What they had conveniently forgotten was that their own research for the past 20 years had been predicting these declines, predictions made well before the arrival of the Internet.

What they also forgot were the lessons of plain language.

Hedging on Circulation Figures

The newspapers may be in more trouble than they care to admit. Their circulation figures are often inflated to win advertisers. They are not accurate reflections of the number of people who actually open and read a newspaper on a regular basis.

A large part of circulation figures consists of bulk sales to institutions like hotels and airlines. Another ten percent are copies given to schools.

A another problem is that large numbers of those who subscribe do not actually read the paper. There is an enormous turnover in subscriptions, with a good half failing to re-subscribe each year. The arrival of the "Do not call" lists was a tremendous blow to the newspapers, as it cut back on efforts to replenish subscribers.

Smaller is Better

Actual numbers of news readers are higher than ever, but many now go to the Web for news, especially young people. For them, Web news does not destroy forests, and it does not clutter their apartment.

In response to this challenge, publishers are re-discovering old lessons such as smaller newspapers are more likely to be read. The stately London Times, for example, went to a tabloid format last November, resulting in a reported 30,000 boost in sales.

Several newspapers in Europe have taken to printing small "commuter tabloids" that are distributed free. Like the alternative papers in the U.S., they are counting on advertising, not subscriptions, to pay for them.

The Most and Least Readable

The Daily Mirror has one of the largest circulations in the world. It also advertises itself as "The Best Newspaper on the Web" and might well be. You can access large amounts of information very rapidly.

Even British tabloids such as the Sun and Daily Mirror, both written at the 9th-grade level, are starting to lose circulation, along with the American tabloids such as the National Enquirer, the Globe, and the Star.

The Times of India, at the 15th-grade level, may be the most difficult newspaper in the world to read. It also has one of the most cluttered Web sites.

Flesch and Gunning—The Fog Busters

The truth is, many newspapers have become too difficult for most adults to read.

To save readers and advertising, publishers have to do more than change the format of their newspapers or go to the Web. They also have to look up old lessons from Rudolph Flesch and Robert Gunning, who worked with newspapers and wire services to improve readability. Flesch worked with the Associated Press and Gunning with United Press.

During the period from the beginning of the New Deal to the end of World War II, newspapers had climbed steadily in reading difficulty. The work of Flesch and Gunning in the 40s and 50s gave them new life. They lowered average reading level of the newspapers from the 12th to the 9th grade. The reading level of the United Press dispatches went from the 16th to the 11th grade.

The results were considered something of a miracle at the time. Newspaper readership increased up to 45 percent. One 1948 study in the Journalism Quarterly showed that lowering the reading difficulty of a newspaper from the 13th to the 6th grade increased the number of paragraphs read by 93.11 percent.

Alan Gould, Executive Editor of Associated Press wrote in 1949:

"It is no exaggeration to say that the impact of Doctor Flesch's ideas on simpler, clearer ways of writing represents one of the most significant developments of our journalistic times. The effect has been to make more readable—and, therefore, more understandable—the combined output of the three great media of free expression in the United States: the newspapers, the magazines, and the radio.

"The rapidity with which Doctor Flesh has achieved results on the American writing scene is due, I suggest, to two main factors:
(a) his own skill in presenting a novel formula for Readability, and
(b) the extent to which it has been applied effectively to news writing. A Flesch axiom—"Write as you talk"— is now widely accepted by newspapermen who scoffed at the doctor's ideas when they began emerging from collegiate classrooms.

"The answers are simple enough, as the doctor has demonstrated and our own Associated Press staff has proved. The basic answer is this: newspaper readers or radio listeners have a better chance of grasping the news, or what it means, if it is told to them simply and clearly."

The Magazine Evidence

Both Flesch and Gunning extensively studied the relationship between the readability of popular periodicals and their circulations, shown in the following charts.

Rudolph Flesch Magazine Chart (1949)
StyleFlesch Reading Ease Score Average Sentence Length in Words Average No. of Syll. Per 100 Words Type of Magazine Estimated School Grade Completed Estimated Percent of U.S. Adults
Very Easy 90 to 100 8 or less 123 or less Comics 4th grade 93
Easy 80 to 90 11 131 Pulp fiction 5th grade 91
Fairly Easy 70 to 80 14 139 Slick fiction 6th grade 88
Standard 60 to 70 17 147 Digests 7th or 8th grades 83
Fairly Difficult 50 to 60 21 155 Quality Some high school 54
Difficult 30 to 50 25 167 Academic High school or some college 33
Very Difficult 0 to 30 29 or more 192 or more Scientific College 4.5

Robert Gunning Magazine Chart (1952)
Group Approx. Total Circulation Average Sentence Length Percentage of Hard Words Total Fog Index
Class Fewer than 1 million201030 12
NewsAbout 3 million1610 2610
Reader's Digest8 million 15 7229
SlicksMore than 10 million15 5208
PulpsMore than 10 million15 3166

Today's publications

The following chart of current publications also reveals readability patterns. We obtained the grade-level figures by applying the Dale-Chall original formula to at least 4,000 words from front-page news stories and feature articles in each of the publications.

Grade Level and Circulation of Current Periodicals
Periodical Grade Level Circulation
Times of India 15 2,144,842
London Times 12 619,682
Los Angeles Times 12 1,292,274
Boston Globe 12 707,813
National Enquirer 12 2,760,000
Sydney Sun-Herald 12 393,000
China Daily 12 1,000,000+
Atlantic Monthly 11 1,500,000
Better Homes and Gardens 11 7,628,424
Atlanta Constitution 11 606,246
Cleveland Plain Dealer 11 479,131
San Jose Mercury News 11 298,067
New Yorker 10 1,900,000
New York Times 10 1,680,583
Washington Post 10 1,007,487
USA Today 10 2,665,815
TV Guide 9 13,200,000
The Sun (UK Tabloid) 9 3,541,002
Daily Mirror (UK Tabloid) 9 2,148,058
Harpers 9 230,159
Time 9 4,114,137
Reader's Digest 9 12,212,040

Notice that:

  • Two magazines with the largest circulations in the world, TV Guide and Readers Digest, are written at the 9th-grade reading level.
  • The newspaper with the largest circulation in the world, the Sun, is written at the 9th-grade reading level.
  • USA Today is written at the 10th-grade level.

The Blockbusters

If some newspaper editors still argue that plain language cannot be expressive and vigorous, they should look at what novelists can do with it. These top-selling U.S. authors all write at the 7th-grade level:

The Romance Novels

Perhaps the biggest success story in publishing is that of the romance novels, which are often written at the 5th-grade level:

  • Romance fiction generated $1.63 billion in sales in 2002.
  • There were 2,169 romance titles released in that year.
  • Romance fiction comprises 18% of all books sold (not including children’s books).
  • Romance fiction comprises 53.3% of all popular paperback fiction sold in North America.
  • Romance fiction comprises 34.6% of all popular fiction sold.

The Master Speaks

"I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words, and brief sentences. That is the way to write English—it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; and don't let the fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in.

"When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when close together. They give strength when they are wide apart."

—Mark Twain, in a letter to a 12-year-old boy.

Mark Twain wrote his masterpieces like Huckleberry Finn and his non-fiction books like Roughing It at the fifth-grade level. He wrote his essays at the 7th-grade level.

If there is any lesson we can draw from over a hundred years of research and practice, it is that people read what they find comfortable to read, that is, materials that match their reading ability. Today, people want news that is convenient to access, concise, independent, and most of all easy-to-read.

Knowing all this, why would any newspaper editor or teacher of journalism not encourage writers to write at a 7th-grade level? Why not write at a reading level that matches the reading ability of the average American adult?

It will do more than help save the newspapers. It might give us a few more millionaire authors.

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