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Dumbing Down The Dallas Morning News

Why would a newspaper force its reporters to write like high school sophomores?
By Tim Rogers |
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George Rodrigue, the managing editor of the Dallas Morning News, sent a memo to his newsroom in May. It began: “Nothing matters more than writing stories that our time-pressed readers can easily understand. To that end, we created a newsroom-wide standard: All our stories should fall at or below the tenth grade level (that’s ‘10.0’ or lower) on the Fleisch-Kinkaid scale.” Rodrigue went on to tell reporters how to use a feature of their word-processing software to grade their stories before filing them.   


There are at least three problems with this memo and the system it imposes on the paper. First, the readability test is actually called Flesch-Kincaid, after Rudolf Flesch and J. Peter Kincaid. The former was an Austrian-born writing teacher and author who devised a readability formula, based on sentence length and syllables, in 1948. The latter adapted Flesch’s work for the U.S. military in the mid-’70s, for use in evaluating technical manuals and the like.


Second, the system doesn’t work. While we could not find a DMN reporter who would comment on the record, on the whole they seem to resent it. For quotes, then, we turn to two distinguished authorities. The late E.B. White wrote an essay in 1951, after General Motors had built a “reading-ease calculator” based on Flesch’s work. White wasn’t a fan: “It is my belief that no writer can improve his work until he discards the dulcet notion that the reader is feebleminded, for writing is an act of faith, not of grammar. Ascent is at the heart of the matter. A country whose writers are following the calculating machine downstairs is not ascending—if you will pardon the expression—and a writer who questions the capacity of the person at the other end of the line is not a writer at all, merely a schemer.”


And from the very much alive Roy Peter Clark, who teaches writing at the Poynter Institute: “I can write a story that fails the metric but is perfectly comprehensible to all readers, and I can write a sentence that passes the metric but is absolute gibberish.”


Finally, there is the motive underlying the implementation of the system. Bob Mong is the editor of the newspaper (though he will retire next year). In 2013, with a base salary of $363,379, he received an $81,761 bonus for achieving certain “non-financial objectives.” An SEC filing laid out his accomplishments: “Mong increased the print and digital productivity of the Dallas Morning News reporting staff by refining and expanding the tools for measuring print, blogs, social media posts, and writing clarity; diversified the projects the Dallas Morning News published such as JFK50, Girl in the Closet, West, Texas explosion investigation and analysis, and the assassination of a public official in Kaufman County; and increased his presence and influence on Twitter.”


The tool for measuring writing clarity? That must be the Flesch-Kincaid system. The Twitter thing? Mong has 1,315 followers. We’re still trying to figure that one out. 

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