Who’s Reading What We’re Writing?

How leftist journalists can reach readers beyond the activist bubble

by Suzy Subways
All images by the author unless otherwise noted.

On a windy March afternoon in Hollywood, Florida, blissfully vacationing, eating an $8 thimbleful of Ben & Jerry’s, I noticed this double-sided sign imploring people to walk their bicycles in that area. And the many people bicycling past it. Immediately, a few embarrassing memories came up to slap me and I thought of my decades working on leftist journalism, with many of our messages less successful than others. 

When people get new and unexpected information, especially if there’s a lot going on around us, it’s challenging for our brains to fully take it in. If you’re writing an article, editing a newspaper, or putting out public health messaging, it’s probably new information, and it might be unexpected. How do you make it as clear and compelling as possible so people can take it in? The answer is often different depending on what you’re trying to do. 

For public health messaging, how do you explain why it’s important that face masks protect not just individuals but the community? For revolutionary left organizers and journalists, how do you offer people hope that our organizations and movements can make a much better world than the two-party system? 

Articles written for fellow leftists, like this one, are so much easier to write. 

I remember when fellow left journalists and I put together a beautiful, big and wide print newspaper, the UnConventional Times, to distribute to Philly natives before the Democratic National Convention in 2016 and to activists coming here to protest it. We put stacks in libraries, bookstores, bars—everywhere, though mostly in West and North Philly—and handed them out to individuals in the neighborhoods as our protests passed by. The front page highlighted Philly’s movement against police brutality in a Democrat-run city and criticized local Democrat politicians’ role in gentrification. But in the neighborhoods, I was almost always met with a hostile, “You want Trump to be president?” when I handed folks the paper. People outside the activist world could not compute this thing. But the reason people have so much trouble imagining a way forward outside the Democrats or Republicans is that we haven’t offered them a credible way yet, as organizers. As journalists, we failed by not putting at least a little picture of Trump with a slash mark through it at the top of the paper so readers would know we weren’t Republicans.

Who Are We Writing For? 

The first thing we need to do as leftist journalists is ask ourselves, who is this article for? Activists and radicals do need space to strategize, so there’s nothing wrong with publishing content specifically for leftists or for particular segments of activists, etc. But it’s important to be aware that that’s what you’re doing. If you’re writing a commentary about activist culture, trying to shift some negative trends or make organizing more inclusive, that’s great! But, like this piece I’m writing right here, your article is for people who are already activists. It’s just important to know that. The danger is when we think we’re writing for a general audience, but we’re really just writing for people like us. 

If we want to reach people who are not already activists, we can’t just include articles that are written for activists. Try spotting words or concepts that somebody who has not been active in social justice movements would not understand without further explanation. “Carceral logic,” “imperialism,” and “cis,” just to give some examples, are important terms that readers may want to understand, so we just need to say exactly what they mean when we do use them. This can mean just adding a sentence or a few words in parentheses to explain the term. Also keep in mind that sometimes it’s an age gap—older people may be less familiar with newer words.  

If you do want to write an article or create a publication that reaches beyond activist circles, you’ll be up against some challenges—but you’ll also have unique ideas and knowledge to offer. In terms of challenges, here’s a sad fact: Only one American in 10 reads a newspaper regularly. I’m pretty sure that includes newspaper websites like the ones I read on my phone, not just the print version. So corporate press is having trouble too. And it doesn’t help that most of them use their own version of elitist language the majority of people may not understand. 

But we can do better. I’m thinking about when Philadelphia started banning plastic bags you’d get at the supermarket checkout. Our hometown paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, kept publishing articles with “What you need to know” about the ban: What day it would start, which stores would be impacted, etc. But these articles didn’t mention why the city banned single-use plastic bags! The change was framed as a disruption in our lives that the paper could help us get through by giving us details. I imagine many readers, even if they have an idea that plastic might not be good for the environment, may have seen the change as simply a negative decision from above that makes their day more stressful. 

This is one way a lefty news source that reaches beyond just activists can be helpful. We can offer “news you can use” with details on changes that impact people’s daily lives—and with that, we can offer an anti-capitalist perspective making sense of the changes, whether good or bad. 

Some publications are able to pull off the brilliant move of reaching both types of reader at the same time, but it’s tricky. It’s even more important when trying to do that that you’re clear who each audience is for each article. Headlines, images, and overall design can help you make it clear to the readers which articles are for which audience. You can include some articles for each type of reader, but my advice would be to have more articles that appeal to non-activists than otherwise, so that you don’t scare them off. 

Bad News From the Focus Groups

Twenty years ago, I worked as an editor for a highly respected national HIV/AIDS community magazine with about 100,000 readers. At some point the magazine organized focus groups of readers living with HIV to give us feedback. We were startled by what the focus groups had to say: They loved the magazine and saw themselves reflected in it, but they didn’t read most of the articles because the language was at a reading level that was too advanced. This had never crossed our minds. Our articles were written at about the same reading level as The New York Times. We all read The New York Times. We had no idea that the average American reads at an 8th grade level. We talked about it in meetings and by the office microwave. One editor observed that even a worker with a master’s degree might need the magazine to be easy to read if they’re perusing it on a crowded subway train home from a hectic day. 

All it takes to make an article easy to read is shortening the sentences, replacing complex words with a few more words that mean the same thing, and careful editing for clarity. But as I remember, we didn’t change much at the magazine after the focus groups. And I’ve worked on all-volunteer publications with other leftists who argued that making our writing easier to read would be “dumbing it down” and “insulting” to our readers. But who were our readers? We rarely tried to find out. I think we just put the words out there and trusted that people would read them.

Writing and editing for clarity is not an intuitive process. Poynter has an excellent guide I’d encourage you to use. You have to start telling the story with what your readers don’t already know—which means you can’t assume they have been reading about the situation you’re covering. You have to read over your work while imagining that you’re not an activist and you haven’t heard about this issue before, then see if there are any parts of the article you don’t understand. You might want to also try reading the article extra fast while thinking about something else, and see if there are any particular sentences that trip you up in confusion. 

Here’s an example of unclear writing: I work on Prison Health News, which is read by about 5,000 people in prisons across the country. When we were publishing it out of a large nonprofit, we wrote a mission statement saying that we’re “a newsletter and health resource”—to emphasize that we share lifesaving health information with people without access to it otherwise. This is fundraising language. But we still get tons of letters from people in prison asking us to send the newsletter “and please send me your health resource too.” 

Another note about clarity and how our brains work: Have you seen those “Myth vs. Fact” articles that debunk untruths by repeating them in large, bold fonts? These end up reinforcing the myths in our minds, simply by repeating them. “A more promising correction strategy is to focus on making the true information as easy to process as possible,” argue researchers in this very illuminating Behavioral Science and Policy article

Who’s Reading Who?

The great thing about blogs is you can publish without printing costs, share without physical labor—and you can see the all-knowing blog stats. But what do the stats really tell us? Seeing the number of people who looked at the article can be tremendously satisfying—or devastating. The geographical areas where people read tell us something. It’s useful to know if people got there via Twitter or a Google search. But how do we know if people without a college education are reading it? Is anyone reading it who isn’t already involved in the activist world? 

Any movement worth its salt is trying to “organize the unorganized”—which is not to say that working class and oppressed people are disorganized, like with a messy room or something, just that we’re talking about working class and oppressed people who are not already part of an organization serving the people and/or fighting the power. As journalists, our job is to “make revolution irresistible,” as Toni Cade Bambara urged us decades ago. We want to reach readers who are not yet part of an organization and inspire them to get involved, whether in our organization or another. 

One reason I’ve been working on Prison Health News for 12 years is that people in prison will read your stuff from cover to cover. Incarcerated people need and want the information you have to offer, and if they have to teach themselves to read in order to do it, they will. I never have to worry that our work is not being read. I just have to make sure we’re giving our readers quality, useful, inspiring information and prioritize writing by people in prison. 

Reaching people outside prison is much harder, but we can strategize about this the same way organizers strategize about how to reach people impacted by an issue. Organizing, as wise organizers know, is powered by relationships between people, not just ideas in your head. So what’s the style of writing equivalent to going door-to-door? The most powerful aspect of outreach conversations is the listening, hearing what people’s problems are and how they want to change the power relations they’re dealing with so it’s possible to fix them. Lifting up people’s own concerns and hopes, validating them and bringing them into conversation with others. 

Getting Up Close and Personal

Working at the AIDS magazine, the most valuable skill I learned was how to interview, write and edit a powerful profile. I’d sit down with an activist living with HIV and hear their life story, their deepest values, the details of their campaign work, and how organizing made them feel about themselves and their community. Then we’d pair it with a beautiful color photograph of the profile subject smiling, embodying that survivor warrior love that our readers could feel glowing off the page. The choice of a person who had lived experience of the political issue plus organizing experience fighting for justice on that issue was the key mix. Our readers told us they could see themselves in those stories—both looking up to and identifying with our profile subjects. 

My first profile, an interview with housing activist Joe Capestany in 2002.

If your interview subject isn’t super familiar with the long-term strategy of the campaign or organization, it’s a good idea to interview another leader or strategic thinker from the group. In that case, maybe your article isn’t a Q&A, with just questions from you and answers from your profile subject. It could be a more newsy article with an opening paragraph quoting your main interview subject, a bit of their story, how they got involved, what it means to them to be involved and why they think others should get involved. Then segue into a quote from a strategist in the same group laying out, step-by-step, how they hope to win. And end the article with an inspiring quote or call to action from either of your interviewees. Imagine your readers sitting there, taking it in. What would offer them a path forward in joining the movement?

Side note: Please don’t ever give credit to politicians who do the right thing in response to movement pressure. Power concedes nothing without a demand! The people and the organizers deserve the credit. And a wonderful thing your article can offer is a space for organizers to reflect on their strategies, what worked and what didn’t.

Here’s a list of the most popular types of articles—including profiles—and how to write them, courtesy of Ohio State University. To this list, I would add the person-in-the-street article. (One of my favorites is to ask various people at a protest, “What brought you here today?”) For leftists, we may not see the ethics of the “true-life drama” article, but here’s an example: When I worked on the Philadelphia Partisan, we ran an interview with a union organizer who went to Syria to fight alongside Kurdish feminist leftist liberation fighters, participating in driving out ISIS from Syria. Instead of an international news analysis, sure to be skipped over by many readers, we had a true-life high-risk tale with serious knowledge baked inside, plus on-the-ground photos. I’m not saying not to publish the international news analysis too. It’s just important to have at least a few articles that will appeal to more non-college-educated non-activists.

One of my favorite articles I wrote for the Partisan is a mix of profile and strategic analysis. Our first impulse as writers is to start typing and let the ideas flow directly. But it turns out this isn’t usually the most direct way to share ideas with flesh-and-blood readers. (This article I’m writing here is, again, a luxurious exception.) The point is to offer ideas to your readers via people’s stories, with examples from their lives. Show, don’t tell. 

Serve the People: A Few Thoughts on Distribution

For online publications, promoting your articles can feel like more work than it should, but it’s absolutely worthwhile. Readers aren’t going to simply drift to your website. It’s easy to find helpful guides for how to promote your articles online, so I won’t link any here. Most of them talk about quoting “influencers” in your article and tagging them in social media. My leftist spin on this is that we’re trying to lift up community and labor organizers who are not yet influencers but should be. So we’re not getting big names. But as organizers and as people, they know lots of other people, and it’s an absolute necessity to ask them and remind them to share on social media any article they’re quoted in. 

When I’ve published particularly important writings by people in prison on the Prison Health News website, I’ve sent direct messages to every organization and activist I know who might be interested, asking them to share it. A direct message from a human person makes it much more likely they will do so. Time-consuming, but worth it.

Print media allows you to aim your distribution directly outside the internet Left. In Philadelphia, I’ve spent days biking or driving around to dozens of public libraries to casually place 10 copies on a shelf in the periodicals section for readers to take. Cafes and bars usually have a windowsill or shelf for free publications. The defenestrator, Philly’s former anarchist newspaper, was particularly popular in barbershops. Make a spreadsheet with all the spots you want to hit, split it up by putting your names on the stops you can make, and get out there! If you’re in doubt whether your free offer of a great read is appropriate for that space, like if you’re a white person dropping off newspapers at a Black nationalist bookstore, just ask the person behind the counter. I’ve rarely been turned down. 

Shyness is a challenge for many leftists. Until my mid-20s, talking to people I didn’t know terrified me. Doing it anyway, through all the trembling and awkwardness, is how I overcame my shyness. People I meet now refuse to believe I was ever shy. 

Most print publications don’t have the money for full color, which is guaranteed to make it more likely people will pick up your magazine. When I worked on Love and Rage newspaper in the ’90s, we would pay for one color per issue, to accent the image on the cover and the two-page spread at the center of the newspaper. That helped a lot. We’d use a different color each issue. 

I learned distro from the editors at the Indypendent newspaper in New York City. During big convergences, like the protests against the Republican National Convention in NYC in 2004, we would print 50,000 copies or more, and in addition to the usual distribution, we’d stand outside subway entrances at Union Square and hand the paper out to people. This is a great way to find out what people think of your newspaper at first glance! Instant karma, instant feedback. Don’t be discouraged if most people don’t take the paper from you: Americans are a tough crowd when it comes to reading. But you’ll have some great conversations and, if you’re lucky, learn about what’s important to people. 

 Indypendent newspaper box. Photo by JohnnyReed – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57592408

When people know your publication, they’re more likely to read it, so distro can get easier over time. The Indypendent now has its own newspaper boxes around the city! Likewise, if people know the organizing work of the group you’re part of or that you’re featuring in this issue of your publication, they’re more likely to read it. So make sure you get a copy into everyone’s hands whose work that group has touched. If you’ve profiled a tenant who’s fighting for repairs in her building, make sure she’s got enough copies to give out. If the tenants’ union is having an event, bring a stack of copies and give them out to people. 

When I was a 16-year-old activist first going to citywide antiwar meetings, I was greeted by a tsunami of socialist newspapers from an alphabet soup of various leftist sects who seemed to think the revolution would take place as soon as they sold a certain number of copies of their paper or recruited a certain number of people to their organization. This was super alienating to me, and I never read those newspapers. But we can also be too humble as revolutionaries about what we have to offer. When distributing the Philadelphia Partisan, a magazine published by Philly Socialists, another Philly Socialists member told us not to bring Partisans to a certain public library. Our organization offered free English as a Second Language classes there, and the librarian told the project leader it was OK as long as they didn’t push socialism on anyone. The project leader interpreted that to include not stocking the Partisan on the periodicals shelves of the library. These are difficult waters to navigate and always require some thought. 

So, what is the message I’m trying to get across with this article? Mainly, don’t assume that people read your articles, and don’t assume they understand your articles, at least not in the way you meant them to be understood. Always ask yourself, how do we make this as clear and compelling as possible so people can take it in? Then try to find out how your articles are being understood and creatively adjust your approach. 

Bio: Suzy Subways has been a leftist organizer since 1990 and a professional journalist since 2000. She has written and edited for Love and Rage newspaper, POZ magazine, the Indypendent, the defenestrator, the Solidarity Project, Upping the Anti, Prison Health News, Turn It Up!, the Philadelphia Partisan, and other publications. She is a copy editor and fact-checker for TheBody.com and a member of Philly Socialists.

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