Propaganda?

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Newsletter frontLast term, when council sent out community newsletters to keep residents informed, the illiterati screamed these were ‘propaganda’ and a waste of tax dollars.* Now this council has done the same thing and these nattering nabobs of negativity have raised their voices and screamed… nothing. Their silence is deafening.

Well, they wouldn’t want to embarrass their friends on council, would they? Even if this council repeats the same practice as those they reviled last term…

Let’s not dwell on the hypocrisy of the sycophants and bloggers, else we will never get further (it would fill pages and pages to recount…). Let’s instead look at the ‘newsletter’ that came in your mailbox recently.

It’s not the same as the newsletters sent last term, you will notice.

The first impression it gives the reader is: dullness. It’s so insipid it makes my teeth hurt. Greyness abounds. It has not a single speck of colour anywhere. Not even in the town’s logo. There are some graphics, but the greyness just reduces them to insignificance. Lettering on the low-contrast grey pictures is almost impossible to read, and the background images are so faint they look like dirty smudges.

Newsletter frontOne may argue that colour costs more to publish, but presentation is everything. After all, this newsletter reflects the town, its staff and council. Surely not even the current council is as drab as this monochrome presentation. It simply sucks the brightness out of the day to unfold it. The additional cost of colour could easily have been paid without affecting taxes had council not voted itself a raise and instead spent your taxes more wisely on communication.

But this piece also reflects on the town’s CAO. After all, the buck stops on his desk.

Last term, the interim CAO read and approved all of our newsletters before they went out because he was keenly aware – as any competent CAO is – how important it is to get both the message and the medium right. I can only assume that, if the current CAO takes his responsibility for communications equally as seriously, that he read and approved this piece. In which case, what does this piece say about his communication skills or his dedication to council and the community?

Since we have it in front of us, let’s dissect the newsletter’s contents, style, spelling and grammar. Channel your inner editor and graphic designer with me for a few minutes.

Let me suggest first, before we take out the metaphorical scalpels to this piece, that I seriously doubt this was crafted by the town’s communications officer. My best guess is that some students put it together. Or perhaps the town had the EB staff write and design it. That would explain a lot of its issues.

First the content: by definition a newsletter should have ‘news’ shouldn’t it? What we have here is a rehash of content already published in the town’s newspaper advertising pages (and those pages at least have colour!). Nothing is new, let alone news. It’s tired, old retreads.

Maybe the paper’s dwindling readership, its plummeting credibility and its pedestrian writing make the town want to regurgitate this stuff in another format that someone might actually read. But in that case, wouldn’t it be more cost-effective to simply drop the newspaper ads and send out more newsletters?

Most of the content is best categorized by the term, ‘filler’ AKA ‘fluff.’ Emergency preparedness? Come on… Emergency Preparedness week was May 3-9; why waste space with it now? And the ‘get involved’ item – it’s definitely not news.

The only piece that almost passes as news is the 66-word snippet on the 2015 budget. Arguably the most important item in the ‘newsletter,’ it is not even on the front, but shuffled to the back side. And the budget story is already a month old. This is history, not news.

Not much more information than a tweet’s worth in it. It doesn’t mention any particular expenses or initiatives, where the money will be spent, how much the town takes in or what we pay to the county or boards of education. Will residents understand the unexplained term ‘blended rate’? The % sign is fine for informal use or in formulae, but in sentences it should be spelled out.

It doesn’t tell you how much it cost taxpayers when council voted to raise their own salaries, or staff salaries, or even mention the $40,000 they granted Councillor Jeffrey so she could wine and dine herself around the country seeking a spot on the FCM board (a role that will benefit her, but Collingwood not in the slightest). Nor does it mention that 2.6 percent tax increase should have been avoided because of the surplus from last year. Or that council put your water rates up, too, simply to satisfy the political agenda of staff.

Strategic Plan: Despite the claim, Collingwood doesn’t recognize any need for a strategic plan because a municipality is an object and cannot recognize anything (can a sidewalk see you? feel your tread?). If by this the writer really means council. then it should be council believes, not recognizes, because there has been no prior public input to demand such a plan. The term recognition means identification of a thing or person from previous encounters or knowledge. Without prior association, recognition – literally to re-think – cannot happen.

“The Consultant…. long term.” Whew. Feel your attention wandering as you read that run-on sentence? Aside from the improper capitalization of consultant, that sentence is 34 words long. As I’ve written in the past, that’s too long. Research has shown that comprehension drops rapidly with sentence length. Long sentences like this lose readers’ attention.

A quick note on ordinal numbers: they should not be used with dates; April 29th is stylistically wrong. Dates should be written with cardinal numbers.

“We’ll be at the Farmers’ Market…” Who is ‘we’? There is no indication who will be present. Staff? Committee members? Council? Consultants? Buskers? Farmers?

The little graphic in the lower right corner shows a stylized crowd with three blank dialogue balloons over the people. Is this meant to suggest people have nothing to say? Or that the town can’t hear them? Maybe it means whatever the public says, council will ignore it. Or it could represent council mouthing empty platitudes about the ‘plan.’

Ant headAnd what is that grey thing in the circle at the top left? It looks like two hole-punches, the sort used for making holes in leather, with a ball floating above them. Or maybe they’re stylized ant heads with long mandibles (see image, right). Does it mean council thinks of residents as little insects?

A strategic plan exercise certainly doesn’t need its own logo nor its own initialism (CBSP).

This “community-based strategic plan” (note the hyphen, missing in the newsletter) was touted during the election by the current deputy mayor. It is not community-driven because the community never asked for it. It’s driven by some members of council who hired a consultant, who in turn answers to a committee, all to fulfill a political agenda.

“The plan will establish goals and priorities for the next few years, and the future of Collingwood.” Last council had two strategic planning and priority-setting sessions. But no amount of self-aggrandizing over this magic ‘plan’ (that we were promised within the first 90 days) can change the simple fact that no council can bind future councils to any plans, goals, or priorities. The ‘next few years’ should really read ‘the remainder of the term.’

“Community info booths…” Info is a lazy, informal abbreviation and should be avoided. Write out the full word: information.

“The final Community …budgets.” Thirty two words, many unnecessary, and written in the passive voice.

Hume Street Reconstruction: Spelling errors: Appoximately isn’t a word. That should be approximately. And idetified should be identified. What layout or word-processing program doesn’t come with a spell checker?

“The Contractor will start work at the west end of Hume Street at Hurontario Street and work towards the east.” Unnecessarily padded, bad capitalization and besides, the work is already underway. Try this: “Work began eastward from Hurontario Street.” Six words instead of twenty.

“There will be clear…Hospital.” Thirty two words in one sentence that leave the reader baffled as to what’s happening and where.

“Information and updates… will be provided….” Passive voice.

Can you read the little, grey map at the bottom of this piece? It’s indistinct, blurry and the type is so small I needed a magnifying glass to read it. Even then, it doesn’t actually tell you anything. Images should have meaning, not be simply tossed in as space fillers.

Get Involved: Sitting in an audience is not being involved. Passive activities such as watching a meeting on TV or the internet is not being involved. Reading the town’s ad page or lobby display screen is not getting involved. None of these activities include participation, engagement, dialogue, or input. They are merely informational. How important is it to Collingwood to have people doing nothing but watching? This item simply wastes space.

“Community involvement is important to the Town of Collingwood…” As I mentioned elsewhere, towns are not animate objects that can feel. In this case, because the word’ town’ is specified, one cannot assume it to mean staff or council. In that sense,the town does not care one whit about residents’ involvement, since it lacks emotions.

Why doesn’t this piece mention the standing committee meetings? Council is so secretive about them that one suspects they prefer to discourage any audience outside the few close supporters who cling, remora-like at every meeting.

What does the generic graphic of a coffee (?) cup and a newspaper have to do with getting involved? Or with either sitting in an audience or watching meetings on TV?

Why mention “We’re online with a municipal website…” as if that’s something recent. The town has had a website for the past two decades. Every municipality has a website these days, and the vast majority have Facebook and Twitter accounts, too. That’s not news. And again with that chatty ‘we’ – why the change in voice from third person to second then back to third in the same piece?

Contact information: Where is it? The Get Involved piece tells readers to call a member of council, but doesn’t give out phone numbers. Nor email addresses. Last term’s newsletters gave a phone number and email address for every member of council. This one only has general or staff contact information. Why is this council not being open and transparent to the public?

Access for All: “Collingwood Library invites you to join us…” No, the library doesn’t do the inviting. The staff or the board does that. A building cannot be an ‘us.’ But that’s also the passive voice. Why not say “Come to the Collingwood Library…” or “Join the Library board and staff….”

“An information fair will take place…” Another example of dull, passive voice meant to lull readers into sleep.

There is no need for the exclamation mark after the first sentence. Identifying a week hardly qualifies for an emotional outburst.

The Sailing School item opens with, “The Town of Collingwood is excited to be assuming the operations of the Collingwood Sailing School beginning in 2015.” First, a town cannot get excited: only living beings can feel emotions.

Assuming this means “the staff and council” it might pass muster, if the sentence were written in the active voice rather than passive, with less bureaucratese. And since we’re almost half-way through 2015, this isn’t news. Why tell us about events from the “beginning” of the year – that’s history. Try something like: “The town took over the Collingwood Sailing School earlier this year.”

“The summer program will continue to run…” No, programs don’t run anything. Teachers and administrators – the summer program staff – do that. “The program is taught… water safety.” Another run-on, passive sentence of 31 words that would have been better presented as a list in the active voice.

Summer Events: There is no need for the exclamation mark in the headline.

Art battle: “Don’t miss this unique artistic sport.” This may be a competition, but it is not a sport. And unique does not mean different or exciting: it means one of a kind. A quick Google search turned up hundreds of similar events, so this event is clearly not unique.

Where and when does this event take place? It doesn’t say.

“…create a masterpiece in front of 250 spectators.” How can anyone say it will be a ‘masterpiece’ before it is even created? And how was the audience size pre-determined? What if only 100 show up to watch? Or 300?

Art on the Street: ‘The streets… art banners by more than 50 area artists.” The artists make the banners themselves? Hand-painted banners? No: the banners feature works by more than 50 area artists.

Craft Beer & Cider Festival: Ampersands should not be used: it’s a lazy shortcut. Spell out the word ‘and’. “Featuring more than 25 of Ontario’s best small-batch (needs the missing hyphen) craft brewers…” Brewers or breweries? The former is a person, the latter is the place where beer is made. I suspect the latter was intended because it mentions cideries immediately after.

This 27-word sentence continues, “…and cideries, food trucks, local restaurants, educational seminars, and an amazing lineup of local musical talent.” Why can’t that last item just be “musicians”?

As written, the ‘more than 25’ refers not simply to breweries and cideries, but to the combination of everything listed, which are, apparently, all Ontario’s best, including food trucks and seminars. Had it been intended otherwise, the writer would have inserted something like, “plus” in the sentence after cideries. And a better writer would have shortened the sentence.

Taste of the Town: ‘Vintners and breweries accompany the “tastes.”‘ A vintner is a person involved in making or selling wine. A brewery is a place where beer is made. So both people and places will accompany the tastes? Can a brewery even move around like that? What I suspect will actually accompany the food are the products of wineries and breweries, not the people or the bricks and mortar.

Why the quotation marks around “tastes”? Putting quotation marks around words suggests that they mean something quite different than the words alone mean. It suggests that there is sarcasm or irony involved: these aren’t really tastes, nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

Where and when does this event take place? It doesn’t say.

Farmers’ Market: “Special activities featured…” Needs the verb ‘are’ after activities.

 Day of Delight: “The street will be filled with artisan tents…” What exactly is an artisan tent? A handmade yurt, perhaps? The writer probably meant “tents with artisans.” And that “array of local food” should probably be foods, since I expect more than one type of food will be presented.

Local Live Lunch: Never, ever use an ‘at’ sign – @ – in formal copy. It’s a lazy shortcut for a simple two-letter word. Where is Sheffer Court? New residents and visitors won’t have the foggiest idea. Why not give directions or a more easily identified location?

Elvis Festival: One sentence, 36 words long. Why is this entertainment ‘unparalleled’? One can easily find all sorts of music events that parallel this one. Exceptional would be a better choice of words. Gospel doesn’t need a capital ‘g’.

Sidelaunch Days: One sentence, 33 words long. Again, the word unique is improperly used. The shipbuilding heritage may be rich, but we are not the only place where ships were built, and we aren’t even the only place where they were side-launched.

Now for the design elements:

Typefaces: The type is so boring that one’s eyes easily glaze over trying to read it: a drab sans-serif throughout, even in the headlines. It creates an overwhelming ennui to behold its typographic monotony.

Perhaps this is indicative of a new cost-saving practice at town hall: to only use the least expressive sans-serif typefaces on official documents to save on toner costs (those little serifs must eat up the ink something awful…). Never mind the conventional wisdom that serif typefaces are easier to read in printed works. And roughly 95 percent of the body copy is fully justified, creating ugly rivers of white space and awkward gaps between words.

And why, oh why, are all web links and email addresses underlined? The Chicago Manual of Style says web and email addresses don’t require special formatting in printed copy, and specifically recommends against underlining them. Besides, underlining URLs confuses the reader because subheads are also underlined here. This suggests an unfamiliarity with word processing and layout programs, since underlining or other formatting can easily be turned off.

What matters the wisdom of centuries of type design to the town? So what if every piece it produces has a dreary sameness to it? (The same typographic and design blandness afflicts the town’s advertising pages in the EB)

The leading – the space between lines – varies with each item, giving it an unplanned, scattered look. Most items feel too cramped vertically, as if adjusting the spacing was just a lazy after-thought.

Exclamation marks: There is no need for the exclamation mark in any headline. Nor in the reminder to “see reverse side” on the front. Exclamation marks are properly  used to indicate shouting or strong emotions. Excessive use of exclamation marks is amateurish.

Headlines: Every one of them is written entirely in capital letters, as if someone forgot how to turn off caps-lock. So what that all-capital words have been demonstrably proven harder to read than a proper mix of upper- and lowercase letters? Or that all capitals look like shouting. And that exclamation marks in non-news headlines are simply a childish affectation….

But that’s not the only incorrect capitalization in this document. It’s crammed with it. Words like ‘Strategic Plan,’ ‘Citizen Advisory,’ ‘Consultant,’ ‘Contractor,’ ‘Town Page,’ ‘Budget,’ ‘Breweries,’ ‘Gospel,’ ‘Tribute Artists,’ ‘Finals,’ ‘Stage,’ ‘Committees,’ ‘Downtown’ and ‘Community Service Representatives’ should not not be capitalized. And TORONTO should not be spelled out in all caps.

Hyphens are missing in many places: community-based, up-to-date, fully-qualified, relay-presenting, one-lane, and larger-than-life are some examples where hyphens were left out.

Passive voice: always sure to dull the most lively prose; here it puts it to sleep, especially combined with the clumsy, run-on sentences: “…priorities and actions will have to be decided…”, “…is expected to be presented to Council…”, “”The reconstruction of Hume Street has now begun…” “…were also discussed.” All of these should have been written in the active voice.

There are too many missing commas to identify them all. And you can find many instances of double-spacing after punctuation, an anachronism that professional writers avoid because they create even greater gaps after sentences in justified copy.

Dangling participles are fine in informal speech, but not in official documents where we find the numbing “…that we are all excited to be a part of.” This should be rewritten to something like “…that excites us all.” And that 40-word sentence should be broken into two or even three parts.

But does it really excite us? Who is the plural ‘we’ or ‘us’ that is referred to in the original? Town staff? Council? The mysterious ghost writer/designer? It can’t be residents because residents have not provided their response. Also the present tense in “we are all excited…” suggests current excitement, not something that will happen when the plan is implemented. I suggest few people get excited over setting priorities or other procedural exercises. This is mere hyperbole.

This newsletter is poorly written, poorly designed and poorly printed. How did it get released with such glaring mistakes and flaws? It embarrasses the town, the CAO and council. Someone’s head should roll for such a great disservice to the community. I suggest that head can be found where the buck stops.

~~~~~

* Using a municipal newsletter to inform the public was recommended in the Vision 2020 report, back in 1999.

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3 Replies to “Propaganda?”

  1. I was at the Farmers’ Market today and didn’t see anyone from the Strategic Plan as advertised. Did I miss them? Perhaps they were only available for a few minutes. But I circled the market twice and didn’t see a booth for the CBSP… I suspect they weren’t there.

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