Sometimes brevity is the soul of confusion, not wit

I subscribe to the RSS feed from my hometown newspaper, even though I haven’t lived there since 1987 and don’t plan to move back. It’s a sentimental thing; it’s the first newspaper I worked at, and I like to keep up with what’s going on.

And I will say, for a small-town paper (@9,000 pop.), they do a good job. But like all small-town papers (and some big-city rags, too), there is a tendency to assume that people reading the story already know what you’re writing about. Which leads us to today’s gem:

Daily Review Atlas
Posted Jun 11, 2010 @ 10:00 AM
MONMOUTH — Monmouth’s City Council announces to the public that they no longer have city stickers. Last March the Council voted to stop selling them.
Copyright 2010 Daily Review Atlas. Some rights reserved

So many questions …

  1. Why did the City Council stop selling city stickers?
  2. Is someone else selling them instead?
  3. If city stickers aren’t required anymore (as opposed to just not being sold by the City Council), wouldn’t the story say that?
  4. The Council voted in March. Why write the story in June? Has City Hall been stormed recently by troops of citizens trying to buy city stickers?
  5. What the hell’s a city sticker?

Actually, I already know the answer to that last question. It’s the sticker that every Monmouth resident is (was?) required to buy to put on their car’s windshield.

To me, this little item is emblematic of the ways that newspapers (and other writers) can become myopic about certain topics that get written about over and over again. Pretty soon, it seems natural to leave out background and context because column inches are precious and it’s inconceivable that anyone reading the story won’t already know all that stuff already. It’s always worthwhile to re-read with an eye toward imaginging the story being read by someone who just moved to town yesterday. Even just a brief recap or explanation can make all the difference between “OK” and “WTF”.