I take as an article of faith that every workaday journalist who blossoms into the supreme editor of a publication demonstrates at some point an ability to write effectively—if not artfully. Unless they can write, how can they judge and edit their staff’s copy?
But anecdotal evidence indicates that once enthroned, editors misplace whatever writing knack they once possessed. Maybe the excessive number of meetings they attend each day causes brain atrophy, or maybe they lose their fluency because the position inhibits them from speaking their minds. Perhaps they end up spending so much time with other executives that they end up adopting the ruling class’s native tongue of bullshit.
The editor’s personal showcase for bad writing is the office memo. Until the advent of the Web, editors could hide their hackwork from the general public, but no more. Romenesko bulges with dim reports from the top, which Jim Romenesko either posts or links to on other sites.
All this additional exposure should encourage editors to take extra care in crafting staff memos: It’s one thing to be the laughing stock of your own newsroom and quite another to be an industrywide joke.
Yet the specter of memo republication hasn’t deterred Sandy Rowe, who runs the Oregonian. Rowe’s recent communiqué to the newsroom about staff changes and the newspaper’s “future” was posted to the Web yesterday by Portland’s Willamette Week. Written in the saddest bureaucratese, her 760-word note stops whatever conversation it was designed to start. Swap out a few journalism-specific words for computer lingo and Rowe’s memo could be addressed from a software company president to his staff as he reorganizes the place. Rowe writes in her second paragraph:
As you know, we must transform The Oregonian into a news organization characterized by a reader-first culture across platforms, by agility, and by rigorous and shared standards of success. Our leadership jobs must align with and support our mission, and provide clarity of purpose for the rest of the organization.
Buzz words dot her memo like Everglades roadkill. Transform. Culture. Standards. Platforms. Rigorous. Leadership. Align. Mission. Purpose. Clear goals embedded in our mission. Build our value. Utilize. Maximize the talent. Prioritize. Transition. Challenge. Teams. Committed. Open access issues. Goals. Utility. Impact. Advocate. Evangelist. And this doozy: implementation of the principles of the community connections pillar.
If the editor can’t crack a quip in a memo, if the editor can’t turn an original phrase or mint a fresh idea, she can’t expect her staff to perform such miracles in their copy. Running Rowe’s copy through a word-frequency program illustrates her limited palette. I’ve read grocery lists that were more literate. Among the most frequently used words in her memo is must, which appears 10 times. Instead of conveying a sense of Oregonian destiny, the word signals Rowe’s reliance on managementspeak. Far from rallying the Oregonian staff to help the new bosses remake the paper, Rowe’s memo pours a round of Kool-Aid and invites the newsroom to do a Jonestown.
Read a really bad memo from the editor to his staff? Send it to me via e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org, and maybe I’ll post. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)