How to Chase Away Readers
Managing Editor, CNBC.com
There was this really hot story last week. Did you see it?
It was about banks fudging numbers to make themselves look good. And despite the obvious ... These numbers lie at the heart of mortgages many of us pay. They also are critical to investment decisions worldwide. You'd think this would be the story of the century.
Not a lot of people read it though. Sure, some did ... sort of on a par with a Dow 30 company's earnings report. But not overwhelmingly well ... like our warnings of a coming credit-card crisis. Now we didn't play the story that hard. But we played it ... and had it drawn more attention, we would've played it some more. We watch our meters pretty closely.
The reason it wasn't a draw? I'm convinced it's about a single word. An acronym really. Sometimes certain terms just scare people away from a story or news feature.
In this case, the term was ... LIBOR.
Are you still reading?
The LIBOR is the London Inter-Bank Offered Rate. It's the short term lending rate between banks that is used as the benchmark for many mortgages and lots of corporate paper. (And it is based on an apparently faulty honor system that they won't fix).
But it is a complicated term. It's an acronym that, when placed in a headline, signals to readers "Hey, this may be a hard story to read and understand." We may as well put a sparkly graphic in the lead signalling "Run Away ... Run Away ... Run Away ..."
There are other words and terms like that too. Amortization. Yield Curve. Mezzanine Finance. Data is not a good headline word either, although it gets used a lot because it is short and can fit into tight spaces.
Of course, some words have the reverse effect. See our Eliot Spitzer coverage for some examples.
Journalism professors will say that it is up to the reporter and editor to come up with a way to tell the important story simply, without the jargon that chases typical readers off. Business journalism is a tough coverage area to do that in, but we try, honest.
Unfortunately, some of these off-putting words are crucial to telling the story. And if you work around them too much, you get accused of "dumbing down" coverage. A few of you have written in complaining about this from time to time.
So how to tell the LIBOR story without saying LIBOR?