Readability Overlooked

Orange County Tabloid Misses Target Audience

Orange County's new tabloid: for advanced readers only.

ON August, 2006, The Orange County Register in California launched its new tabloid, The OC Post.

While the snappy full-color design is more attractive to a younger audience, it is written at an average 12th-grade level, two grades above The New York Times and USA Today. That makes it one of the most difficult papers in the country, right up there with the struggling L.A. Times, the Boston Globe, and its own parent, the Orange County Register. The world's most successful English tabloid, the UK's Daily Mirror, is written at the 9th-grade level.

A Bold Experiment

As we noted in these pages last May, shrinking readership has panicked newspaper publishers. The American Journalism Review gloomily predicts the last newspaper will close in October 2044. To reverse current trends, publishers are trying out new ways of engaging readers.

Most notably, they are looking at small-format tabloids aimed at young adults who read the newspapers infrequently. Results have been mixed.

In the UK, three broadsheet daily newspapers—The Independent, The Times, and The Scotsman—have switched to compact tabloid size.

The Metro, a free commuter paper popular in many European cities, has established U.S. editions in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia and is eyeing other markets.

In appearance and content, the OC Post resembles the Examiner, a free tabloid published in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. The difference is that you have to pay for the OC Post, 25 cents at the rack or $19 for a year's subscription.

While publishers stated the new Orange County Post was based on "hundreds of surveys," they forgot to look at the reading levels of their target audience. Publishers who target families with at least $70,000 annual income miss 3/4ths of their potential readers. According to the latest surveys, only 13% of U.S. adults read at the 12th-grade level, a good four grades above the average reading level of U.S. adults.

Home-care workers in southern California's Orange County
(pop. 2,988,000). Some 40 percent of families make below $50,000;
43 percent of adults read below the 8th-grade level.
Photo: United Domestic Workers

Early Readability Lessons

Studies on the readability of the newspapers began in the 1940s with the arrival of the Flesch readability formula. In 1947, Donald Murphy, the editor of Wallace's Farmer, used a split run with one article written at the 9th-grade level on one run and the same article written at the 6th-grade level on the other run. He found that increasing readability increased readership up of the article 18 percent.

In a second test, he found readership increased 45% for an article on nylon with a gain of 42,000 women readers among a circulation of 275,000. They found a 60% increase in readership for an article on corn.

Murphy also found that younger people under 35 showed a bigger re-sponse (50% gain) to the easier versions than to those 35 and over (30% gain). "If you are aiming at younger readers," he stated, "easy reading becomes extra important."

In 1948, Charles E. Swanson showed that better readability increases reading perseverance as much as 80 percent. He developed an easy version of a story with 131 syllables per 100 words and a hard version with 173 syllables and distributed each to 125 families. He surveyed readers 30 hours after distribution. The study showed a gain in the easier version over the hard version of 93% in total paragraphs read, 83% in mean number of paragraphs read, and 82% in the number of correspondents reading every paragraph.

Also in 1948, Bernard Feld did a readership survey of every item and ad in the Birmingham News of 20 November 1947. He divided the 101 items into two groups: those with high Flesch scores of the 9th-grade reading level or more and those below the 9th-grade level. He chose the 8th-grade level as the breakpoint because the eighth grade was the average and "will reach about 50 percent of all American grown-ups."

Among the wire-service stories, the lower-grade stories got two-thirds more readers than the higher-grade group. Among the local stories, the lower group got 75 percent more readers than the higher group. With a circulation of 150,000, this means an average increase of up to 9,000 readers. Even a small actual percentage gain for a large-circulation paper greatly increases the number of readers.

The Hard Work: Enforcing Readability Standards

Washington DC's free commuter tabloid: colorful, snappy, and written at the 12th-grade level, one of the most difficult papers in the nation.

The readability level of different items in the OC Post is very uneven, going from the 8th to the 20th grade. This lack of uniformity shows there has been a failure to set readability standards and enforce them.

Bernard Feld believed in drilling journalists on Rudolf Flesch's clear-writing principles. The emphasis on clear writing is something that bears constant repetition. He insisted on:

  1. Regular, systematic testing of any newspaper, and
  2. A continuing campaign to keep the principles in the mind of the writers.

"And," Feld wrote, "don't let anyone sell you on the idea that you will ruin a writer's style by stressing the Flesch principles. " His own writing staff, after being drilled on Flesch's system for three months, "agreed to a man" that it had improved their writing style.

A format change affects the entire value chain of a newspaper. It provides a rare opportunity to look at how everything works together. If it changes its layout but not its readability, whatever gains it achieves may not endure.

Open Government Initiative

Florida's New Governor Promises Plain Language

Picture Gov. Crist
Charlie Crist: throwing out the gobbledygook.

WITH a stroke of a pen, Florida's new Governor Charlie Crist signed his first executive order making government easily accessible and understandable to everyone. In less than 24 hours in office, Crist completed what he began in December 2006 when he created the Office of Open Government and appointed its first two members.

The order includes a plain-language initiative that requires announcements, publications, and any other documents sent by the governor's office and executive agencies to be written in clear and concise language.

Crist gave the agencies 90 days to adopt the order. which calls for "short sentences written in the active voice that make it clear who is responsible for what."

Adria Harper, director of Florida's First Amendment Foundation applauded Crist. At the signing, she said,"We have a great law, a constitutional right of access in Florida, but whether it is always enforced is sometimes a different story. The executive order highlights the importance of the law and the intent which is simple but fundamental to our democracy, that is to give the people a right of access to its government,"

On January 8, the Governor met with Holly Benson, Secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, and her senior staff to discuss the implementation process for the Governor's Plain Talk Initiative. "The people are entitled to clear communication with their government," said Governor Crist. "This is the people's government, and clear, plain language will be used to make it open and transparent to all."

Secretary Benson said, "The Department of Business and Professional Regulations regulates more than one million professionals and businesses across the state. I am confident these new guidelines will increase the agency's effectiveness and in turn improve customer service."

Read the Executive Order: http://www.flgov.com/release/8482
—From news sources.

William S. Gray

The Reader's Champion

Dick at the store: creating a familiar world for millions of young readers.

BEFORE Dr. Seuss, there were the Dick and Jane stories. Between 1927 and 1960, they taught millions of Americans how to read. In the process, they crafted dreams of suburban bliss and became cultural icons. They reflect a society now past and are as remarkable for this depiction as for their influence on American education.

The father of the Dick and Jane stories was University of Chicago educator William S. Gray. He was a giant in American education, publishing over 500 studies on how people learn to read. He developed what is known as "whole-language" instruction, which emphasized reading and writing for meaning and interest. The Dick and Jane stories, part of the Elson-Gray Basic Readers, were an attempt to give children stories and characters they could relate to.

In 1915, Gray published the first important reading test, which, in revised form, is still in use. His tests led to the first literacy surveys in schools and then among adults. Many of his studies focused on helping poor readers and led to the development of reading clinics. In 1925, he publised a report strongly advocating lifelong reading habits. It was evident to him then that little was known about adult reading habits.

In 1929, he published, with Ruth Munroe, The Reading Interests and Habits of Adults. Among the findings was that "millions of natural born Americans were illiterate." Some had never learned to read, while others neglected their reading skills, resulting in loss of competence. The authors believed that reading interests could be developed in children, leading to significant and life-long reading habits.

How Well Do Adults Read?

In 1935, Gray collaborated with Bernice Leary of Xavier College in Chicago to publish What Makes a Book Readable? This extensive study on what makes writing easy to read featured one of the first readability formulas.

The first part of the book includes a scientific survey of readers in the U. S. between the ages of 15 and 50. The sample consisted of 1,690 adults from a variety of institutions and areas around the country.

The testing consisted of two parts. The first used a number of fiction and non-fiction passages taken from magazines, books, and newspapers. The second part used the Monroe Standardized Reading Test, which gave the results in grade scores.

William S. Gray (1885-1960):
leading a world of readers.
Photo: International Reading Assn.

The results showed a mean grade score of 7.81. This meant that the adults tested were able to read with an average proficiency equal to that of pupils in the eighth month of the seventh grade. Some 44 percent reached or surpassed the reading level of eighth-grade students of the elementary school.

About one-third fell in grades 2 to 6, another third from 7 to 12, and the remainder from 13 to 17. These results roughly mark the elementary, secondary, and college levels.

The authors stressed that half the adult population is lacking suitable materials written at their level. "For them," they wrote, "the enriching values of reading are denied, unless materials reflecting adult interests be adapted to meet their needs."

One third of the population needs materials written at the 4th, 5th, and 6th-grade levels. The poorest readers—one sixth of the adult population—need "still simpler materials for use in promoting functioning literacy and in establishing fundamental reading habits."

There have been many changes in the teaching of reading since Gray's time, but the needs of adult readers have remained remarkably stable. Some 15 million cannot read at all, while 129 million read below the 8th-grade level. Providing them with suitable reading materials is the goal of the plain-language movement.

Plain Language in the News

Say balderdash to gobbledygook:

Business schools take aim at bad writing:

SEC orders executive pay info in plain English:
local/doc45a4f8 ef2d85a362843025.txt

Portsmouth council Web site receives Crystal Mark:

"Combat math" puts financial figures in plain English:

New health-literacy tool:

Illiteracy in California prisons: