Let us begin this exercise by citing the readership details of a few, selected texts in Intervention before we get down to the argument we want to push.
On January 3rd, 2019, Intervention published Intervene Now, Clouds of War Gathering Over Nigeria – Bashir Tofa To Nigerian ‘Bigmen’. It was wrongly published under the name Alhaji Bashir Tofa because the sender received it from the late presidential contender in the 1993 election and sent it as such. Many other outlets republished it from Intervention under Tofa’s name as no one appears to know or tried to trace the original writer. As at today, the piece has been read by 39, 829 persons. And that is just on the website, excluding, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Intervention does not have and does not need the technology to know the names of persons who read it as it is content with knowing the number of clicks.
On July 27th, 2016, this same platform published another piece titled, Buhari and IBB: Will they Ever Bury the Hatchet? Today, it has been read by 15, 600 persons. As at today, a different piece titled The Return of Polio and Yellow Fever in Africa and published August 19th, 2016 has 7,378 readership.
In the same Intervention from where the above selection was made, there are three, four year old stories which have not climbed above 3000 clicks. We can go further.
Normally, readers protest long pieces. Recently, Prof John Ayoade, an Emeritus Professor at the University of Ibadan, delivered a lecture of over 17,000 words. When it landed at Intervention and considering previous protestation of long texts, the initial response was to serialise it. Serialising has been the way interest in such texts is sustained. But, in this case, many readers protested in the reverse: give us everything, we cannot wait. The second installment thus came as a 13, 000 words text and it went up to thousands in readership before the first one week.
All these examples are cited to battle the creeping view that people read only texts which are simple or accessible. People don’t read a text because it is easy to understand. Rather, people read almost whatever is written by their favorite authors. And people read a lot of whatever is in their area of interest or specialisation. People also read much of whatever is topical, is about their own area and timely. These are some of the never failing determinants of readership.
Outside of those determinants is the factor of the ferment of fragmentation, with each new area having its vocabulary. In fact, in the world today, ‘the plain Jane’ of a writer is simply an endangered practitioner of the art.
Furthermore, the media is not just about news or information. It is also expected to teach. It is thus great if every piece sends a reader to the dictionary to add one more word to his cache of vocabulary.
It is for these reasons that many are ill-at ease with the case for simplistic rendition of every subject-matter implied by a recent piece massively endorsed by sundry interests. It is the journal article Prof, No One is Reading You, a title which hints and hits the reader with the notion that unless a piece is brief and free of the ‘jargons of authenticity’, then it is difficult or inaccessible. It is a surprising piece, more so for anyone to argue as the authors did that “we are not aware of a single minister anywhere in the world who has ever wanted regular summaries of scientific publications in areas of their interest”. And to go on to argue that if academics were to have an impact on policymakers and practitioners, then they must consider popular media. That is assuming that popular media write simple, accessible stuff in all cases. Such a distinction never existed as every reader of The Economist and a newspaper such as The Guardian in the UK and The New York Times would testify. The New York Times, for instance, is what no serious student of International Relations can do without, irrespective of ideological bent. Same as the UK based The Guardian or Aljazeera. Instructively, the said article was initially published in the Singapore based StraitsTimes, a newspaper.
One reader who disagreed with that particular piece is Dr. Yusuf Bangura, the Swiss based international political economist. His argument is both at the factual and contextual levels. He contests, for example, the unbelievable claim in the journal article that “an average academic journal article is read in its entirety by about 10 people”. Most journal articles, he said, are read before they appear in journals. “While short pieces for the general public are absolutely important, we cannot kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Without those long academic articles and books, the popular articles will become mere opinion without evidence that scholars quarrel over”.
Dr. Bangura adds how he learned how to write for the public at the United Nation Research Institute for Social Development, (UNRISD). “As a policy focused institution, we were forced to produce briefing papers and short commentaries from the research reports and books that we published”, he told Intervention.
Dr. Bangura must stand on a firm ground. The initial version of a recent piece by Intervention had to be updated because, among others, some people protested that it was not accessible but that it touched on an important issue. An updating was done (Updated: Building on NAPS’s Recent Maneuver in the Methodological Battlespace) and, like joke, the readership almost doubled instantly. Few details were added in the updated version but too few to have been the reason for the jump in readership. Instead, a premeditated belief that the piece was difficult would rather account for the reluctance to read. The sight of terms such as neopositivism, interpretivism, Postpositivism and so on must have persuaded quite a number of readers to step back. In the updated version, these were not changed but the readership still went up.
It all goes back to speaking the language of specialisation. A piece in the realm of ‘Philosophy of (Social) Science’ as that piece in question cannot attempt replacing concepts such as empiricism, positivism, Postpositivism, interpretivism, ontology, epistemology and so on without becoming pedestrian. Yes, it is always possible and even easy to add for epistemology, for instance that it is about how do we know that what we know is valid but that is what can also earn the writer a rebuke for assuming that his or her readers are morons who do not know anything. The wise course is to always leave standard concepts as they are unless they have been used in a slightly different sense.
Where is the way out then? There was no closure in the first case. We must all get up to the challenge of reading, of transcending the culture of ‘Executive Summary’ imposed by the world of images, graphics and visuals.