He Understands That Writing Should Be Understandable

By Dave Astor

When David Cay Johnston speaks June 22 at our conference in Buffalo, NY, he’ll discuss how to present complicated information to readers in an understandable way. The 2001 Pulitzer Prize winner said the importance of that can’t be overemphasized – whether the person doing the writing is a columnist, blogger, reporter, or other kind of wordsmith.

“You’re not writing for people who already know this stuff,” he said in a February 17 phone interview. “You’re writing for people who don’t know this stuff.”

For Johnston, “this stuff” has included writing about the U.S. tax code’s loopholes and inequities – a topic for which he won that aforementioned Pulitzer while a New York Times investigative reporter. (Johnston’s work on that subject has also led to some reforms.) But making complicated things understandable – which includes “translating” obtuse language into “plain English” – of course also applies to many other topics Johnston and others have covered.

Paraphrasing famed consumer advocate Ralph Nader, Johnston said “government regulations and laws are designed to not be understood by ‘mere mortals’” – and that writers who thwart that intent are doing a real public service.

Making complicated things understandable also means writing as short as possible (columnists avoiding 800 words when 500 would suffice) and not “showing off” by diverging into various tangents. “Stick to the high points and don’t get lost in the weeds,” advised Johnston.

He also suggested that writers simplify their presentation of numbers – for instance, using cents-on-the-dollar comparisons rather than larger figures when, say, noting how much more the U.S. spends on health care than other industrialized nations do.

Johnston said columnists have “a big advantage” over reporters in conveying things in a simpler way because they can gear their writing directly to their readers rather than be in “objective” mode.

After decades as a reporter – starting when he was 17 – for the San Jose Mercury News, Detroit Free Press, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, and New York Times (the last from 1995 to 2008), the now-70-year-old Johnston concentrates on opinion pieces he writes on a freelance basis for various publications in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. “These are reported columns, not ‘thumb-suckers,’” he said.

“It’s a privilege to be a columnist,” added the San Francisco native/New York State resident, who has been a NSNC member for at least a half dozen years.

A number of Johnston’s writing clients are newspapers, even as he acknowledged that many print dailies are now in dire straits as lots of readers and advertisers have moved elsewhere. He did observe that columnists can help struggling newspapers if they make themselves a “must read.”

Johnston said he realized, during the Internet’s 1990s infancy, that the decline of newspapers would be coming, and tried to prepare by continuing to diversify his résumé and “developing my name as a brand” – which included, among other things, adding “Cay” to his byline. Johnston has written a number of best-selling books, and is currently working on three more: one about “a 21st-century tax system,” the second focusing on corporations, and the third with a baby-boomer nostalgia theme.

The 2019 NSNC conference speaker also teaches at Syracuse University and runs a hotel-management company with his oldest son – with the latter job offering a valuable lesson Johnston wishes more newspaper owners would follow. “Every time we raise prices we give customers something,” he said. “Better shampoo, nicer towels… But many newspapers keep reducing content and cutting staff while charging more. That’s a business model that can’t stand the test of time.”

And Johnston is an unpaid co-founder of the 2016-launched DCReport.org, which has posted many stories other media outlets have picked up on (not always crediting the site) and has also had influence on the way some journalists report on things. He said, by way of example, that “we don’t cover what Trump says; we cover what he does” – which of course is often different from what he says. This is accomplished by reading public records and such; DCReport.org focuses little or not at all on White House “palace intrigue” and little or not at all on various other tabloid-y Washington controversies that don’t relate to the “day-to-day mechanics” of government and law-making.

But in an era where Trump calls accurate reporting he doesn’t like “fake news,” and many right-wing Republicans demonize the media, how much impact can good journalism have?

“All we can do is do our job,” replied Johnston. “The worst thing would be to say it’s pointless. Time will out these people.”


Dave Astor writes the weekly “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com, blogs weekly at DaveAstorOnLiterature.com, and is the author of “Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time: The Book Lover’s Guide to Literary Trivia.”

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