A little over half the world’s population has poor or very poor literacy skills that make it impossible for them to get through dense, lengthy texts, a recent study from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found.
“Most newspapers are written on Levels Three to Five,” said Walburga Fröhlich, the CEO of the Austrian nonprofit, Atempo. She was referring to the large-scale, 2016 survey by the intergovernmental economic organization, which distinguished between six levels of reading proficiency. “It’s 54% of the adults worldwide who are not able to understand and read quality news,” she added, noting that OECD researchers found this percentage of adults is able to understand texts only up to Level 2.
As a result, many people were turning to websites that produce mis- and disinformation and manipulative, sensational stories for their news intake precisely because they are written in plain, easy-to-understand language, Fröhlich said. Such publications stoke anger and resentment among their readers against the establishment, she explained, tying the growing appeal of populist leaders around the world to the inability of half the world’s population to understand articles from established news outlets.
“It’s a big problem for people with disabilities, but the problem is bigger […] because many people cannot understand quality news, and when they do not understand, they feel manipulated,” she said.
Atempo set out to close the local manifestation of this global information gap in Austria two years ago by premiering a news overview in plain, easy-to-understand German.
As a business with a social mission, Atempo wanted to ensure the widest possible reach and impact from the beginning. In the summer of 2017, they contacted Austria Presse Agentur (APA), to see if they were interested in collaborating on an easy-language news product. As the local wire service, APA supplies news to national public broadcaster, Österreichischer Rundfunk (ORF) and the country’s dozen newspapers.
Six months later, APA agreed.
Initially, Atempo modified the news articles written by APA reporters into easy-to-understand stories. After being trained by Atempo in the summer of 2018, however, APA staff themselves started modifying the stories.
This daily news overview in plain German, called TopEasy, runs like a well-oiled machine today. Two APA journalists begin their mornings translating the day’s top stories into two language levels – one requiring elementary language skills, the other an intermediate level of German.
The Austrian newswire then distributes the stories to local newspapers, who are free to use them in the early afternoon. They also send the stories to more than 100 local NGOs in the form of a newsletter, and upload them to the ORF public broadcaster’s Teletext service, as well as Atempo’s own app, Capito. The app’s reach has grown exponentially, from 3,000 monthly users at launch in 2018 to 130,000 users in February of this year.
Seventy to 80% of TopEasy’s budget comes from the Austrian social affairs ministry, with the rest covered by APA. Taxpayer money from the ministry was critical in getting TopEasy off the ground, said Christian Kneil, head of the APA multimedia department.
“Without this funding, we wouldn’t have done this,” he said. This, importantly, allows TopEasy to provide the local outlets with the easy-language news overview for free.
“This is one of the key points – you have to finance this project; the media are not so easily convinced to pay for it,” he added. He recommended that news organizations interested in setting something up like TopEasy try to obtain funding from another source.
Kneil also advised news outlets to brace for criticism and, more importantly, to hold steadfast. “You have to be not reserved; you have to be brave,” he said. “In Austria we see that many newspapers are worried about the reactions of their audience when they offer news in easy language,” he said. The stories in plain German stand out from the traditional news stories like a sore thumb, according to Kneil.
“Editors tell us: ‘Our audience is intelligent; we don’t need this,’” he explained, adding that news organizations should anticipate such critiques by communicating the value of offering news in plain language to their staff and their readers from the get-go. “This is very important. That the public understands why this offer is so important,” he said.
He proceeded to tie the availability of easy-to-understand news offer to increased political engagement and participation. “What we know — if they have more information they understand, they more often go to elections and be part of the political process.” He pointed out that poor literacy skills can spring from learning disabilities, old age, low education levels, or because readers grew up speaking a different language.
To date, three of the 12 newspapers that APA supplies news to are embedding the TopEasy stories on their website.
Fröhlich, meanwhile, suggested that news organizations interested in offering stories in plain language team up. “If they would cooperate, they could spread out much more information and give much more news to all the people,” she said, noting that it’s a waste of resources for multiple news outlets to translate the same top stories dominating headlines.
She also advised news outlets not to underestimate the skill it takes to translate stories into plain language and to seek proper training. Journalists often think they write easy-to-understand stories when they don’t in fact, Fröhlich said.
“They really have to learn it and train it,” she said.
News outlets should also put the content in plain language front and center so readers can easily find it, Fröhlich added.