Somebody told me recently that the National Post intentionally writes at a grade-nine reading level (that is, for 14 year-olds). The object, I presume, is to make their product accessible to the widest possible audience. Ignoring what this says about the state of literacy in the Great White North, it seems likely that this policy is ill-informed, and probably derived from the success of the “news show,” which is not to be confused with “the news.”
In recent years, we have seen a freakish growth in the popularity of “news shows.” The news show is to the news what drink is to juice. The latter is full of content and nutrients, the former is soul-sucking and leaves you empty. As a form of entertainment, Anderson Cooper 360º, or Dumont 360, can be a fun way to fill the space between commercials. For their entertainment value, it’s no surprise that these shows have grabbed market share from their entertainment competitors. News shows are a form of the reality TV that originally robbed market share from traditional fictional comedies and dramas.
It seems that newspapers have taken on the model of news shows. The consequences are devastating because the analogy of the newspaper and television news is fundamentally wrong-headed. Those who are disposed to reading are not disposed to reading crap. Reading is an active endeavour, whereas watching TV is passive. Think back to when you were 14. How many of your friends would you find voluntarily reading a book? If you then became an adult, and you were still reading at the level of a 14 year-old, chances are that you were never particularly inclined to reading, and that you don’t read very much.
Like most things, it’s hard not to get good at reading if you do it fairly regularly. Usually when you get good at something, you aren’t satisfied with doing whatever it is that you’re good at at a level inferior to your skill for any length of time. This is not the case with TV, where you aren’t actively doing anything: you’re just sitting there, passively absorbing. That is, your skill level doesn’t improve; you don’t get good at watching TV. Therefore, the analogy between TV and print is a bad one. The audience for newspapers – those that are willing to buy them – are already fairly good at reading. You loose your audience if you dumb the text down to a level where the skilled become bored, or worse, disgusted.
Blaming the Internet for the slow death of the print newspaper is a cop-out. I don’t read the Gazette because it’s become total crap. In fact, so are all the commercial papers. It’s actually painful to read them: they’re daily books of sensational fluff and barely-entertaining commentary. If I’m going to trouble myself to read something, I’m going to hunt for something stimulating. The state of commercial print media has left me with little choice but independent print journalism, high-priced monthlies and quarterlies, and the wide world of free Internet content, where I’ve found some brilliant minds. So if you find The Daily a bit heady lately, thank the editors for having some respect for you and understanding that you want something smart, creative, and with journalistic integrity.