Hey, Philly Inquirer, can we please stop with the random bold type in news articles?

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A sample from Bunch’s column

The latest piece by Will Bunch, columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, features random phrases in bold. This is, I suppose, intended to make it more skimmable, but reading it is like eating a meal with rocks randomly strewn throughout. Whatever it is, I’d like to stop it right now.

What happens when you read this?

Here’s a hunk of Bunch’s latest column, which is about how Republican county commissioners attempted to punish a library for hosting LGBTQ support meetings, and instead generated a surge of fundraising for the library. All of the bold is in the original article.

Commissioners in Pa.’s Trumpiest county branded LGBTQ meeting a ‘hate group.’ Then came the blowback

Most people only see Fulton County as a 75-mile-per-hour blur of hills on the Pennsylvania Turnpike while driving west from Philadelphia toward Pittsburgh. To the not even 15,000 souls who actually live in the state’s fourth least-populous county, the Fulton County Library on North First Street, in the county seat of McConnellsburg, is a kind of a metaphorical turnpike to a wider world, offering computer terminals for locals lacking internet access and meeting rooms for an array of community groups, while trying to acquire the latest books on its shoestring budget.

Last week, library leaders — who’d seen a small county subsidy (just under 4% of its budget) slashed in half during the Great Recession — sent the Fulton County commissioners a request for an additional $3,000 in the new year, which would bring its total stipend back up to $15,000, or what it had been in the 2000s.

But the two Republicans who wield majority power on the three-member panel said absolutely not, and — according to the account of the meeting in the local weekly, the Fulton County News — they were blunt in explaining why: The library had over the summer given an OK for a proposed new support group for Fulton County’s small, largely invisible LGBTQ-plus community to hold biweekly meetings in its public space.

According to the article by local journalist Cassidy Pittman, GOP commissioner Randy Bunch (no relation, as far as I know), who’s gotten widespread publicity in the Washington Post and elsewhere for the massive 8-foot-high portrait of Donald Trump on the wall of his construction company on McConnellsburg’s main drag, said he believes the LGBTQ community is a hate group.

“If we support them, we have to support Proud Boys and Black Lives Matter,” said Bunch, one of the 85.3% of Fulton County residents who voted for Trump in 2020, the highest percentage in Pennsylvania. The other Republican commissioner, Stuart Ulsh, agreed with Bunch and offered a seeming non-sequitur in defense of his position. . . .

It goes on like that for the full article, 1172 words of which 212, or 18%, are rendered in bold.

Why?

I’m trying to understand the reasoning here. There is no simple rule for what gets bold — it’s names, like Randy Bunch and Stuart Ulsh, but also places, like Fulton County Library, noun phrases, like “Fulton County’s small, largely invisible LGBTQ-plus community,” and random phrases like “believes the LGBTQ community is a hate group” and “what it had been in the 2000s.”

Is this intended to make it easier to skim the article? If so, the bold type should create a narrative. (For example, you can sometimes do this with subheads or bolded bullet heads in a non-fiction piece.) Here’s the “story” told by the bolded phrases:

  • Fulton County 
  • the Fulton County Library 
  • county seat of McConnellsburg
  • small county subsidy
  • the Fulton County commissioners 
  • what it had been in the 2000s.
  • But the two Republicans 
  • blunt in explaining why:
  • Fulton County’s small, largely invisible LGBTQ-plus community
  • GOP commissioner Randy Bunch 
  • massive 8-foot-high portrait of Donald Trump 
  • believes the LGBTQ community is a hate group.
  • voted for Trump in 2020, 
  • other Republican commissioner, Stuart Ulsh
  • an internet conspiracy theory 
  • vote to deny the library the extra $3,000
  • I personally think none of them need any part in Fulton County
  • an increasingly bitter American culture war 
  • conservative activists looking to ban certain books 
  • school board members in Spotsylvania County, Va.
  • a handful of progressive-minded folks 
  • growing climate of intolerance in 2020s America.
  • local activist Emily Best
  • almost been a second home 
  • “I personally felt very safe in the library.”
  • library director Jamie Brambley 
  • an adult LGBTQ-plus Fulton County support group 
  • There’s really no other place 
  • riled some locals
  • She launched a GoFundMe page 
  • Don’t let the hateful ideas 
  • Lt. Gov. John Fetterman
  • a similar campaign that had been launched on Facebook 
  • had raised $14,495 
  • 25 almost-always-out internet “hot spots,” 
  • 3-D printers and sewing machines
  • real value of the Fulton County library fund drive 
  • ignorant intolerance can be beaten back,

Can you make sense of that? I can’t.

I’m left to interpret the random bolding as a fetish intended to bring more attention certain phrases, potentially in hopes of creating more outrage. But even that theory is flawed. If it’s intended to generate outrage, why not bold “we have to support Proud Boys and Black Lives Matter” (a quote from Randy Bunch), “Do we want Muslims moving into our country?” (a quote from Stuart Ulsh), or “Pennsylvania’s Trumpiest county?”

What the random bold does do is to distract the reader. Reading creates flow in your mind — you hear the words, interpret them, think about them, and react to them. Typographical elements help with this: you pause at commas, note subheads as structural elements, identify italicized words as important, take note of direct quotes, and so on. When you read the bold type, your reading brain says “Whoa, these words must be distinctive or important in some way.” But the overused, random bunches of bold overwhelm your system for interpreting meaning — it’s impossible to figure out what they are signaling, because there is no detectable pattern. What they do, quite effectively, is to disrupt your reading flow.

This is another step in a disturbing trend

In my first book, the editor accused my coauthor and me of overusing italics. Those italics had a real meaning — we wanted to stress certain words — but I understood the editor’s sentiments. Since then we’ve seen a flood of articles that bold every name (the Boston Globe even has a regular feature called “Bold Types“), internet screeds made up of random phrases separated by ellipses, and a president who liked to capitalize random phrases just to make them seem more important.

Rules evolve. But for you to create a new rules for things like bold, it helps to have some sort of reasoning behind it.

When you sprinkle bold throughout for no discernible reason, the only effect of your rule-breaking is to destroy readability. So stop.

Use italic for foreign words, book titles, scientific names, and occasional words that you want to emphasize.

Avoid bold as much as possible. It works for type at the beginning of bullets — it helps people skim the bullet content — but other than that, bold in running text is a distraction. Don’t use it as a substitute for italic for words you want to emphasize.

And don’t use typography of any kind at random.

You may think this isn’t the beginning of the downfall of civil society . . . but actually, it sort of is.

7 responses to “Hey, Philly Inquirer, can we please stop with the random bold type in news articles?

  1. Amen. I removed extraneous formatting from my colleagues’ syllabi, instructions, and even test questions in my professor days. It annoyed the hell out of me.

    I’d buy a shirt that read, “Don’t use typography of any kind at random.”

  2. This was a common practice among gossip columns in the old days, enabling skimming for names of celebrities we knew. I find it jarring to say the least. Love the image of “eating rocks.”

  3. This example is unprofessional. I haven’t come across anything like it, but it is as distracting as pop-up ads, requests to disable ad blockers, or having to accept cookies before reading.

    If the intention is to assist busy readers, write the summary in the first paragraph or use bullet points to summarize the main points (like Axios does). If it is to attract attention, use a pull-quote.

    In fundraising letter appeals, we’re taught to bold or underline full sentences (with identified actors), and to do it very sparingly. But even that is not appropriate for a news article.

    First, they came for our Oxford commas…

  4. Josh, thank you for this defense of, indeed, civil society. I too love the eating rocks image, which reminds me of a long ago prof who enjoined us not to scatter punctuation across the page like bird droppings. Viva the Oxford comma!

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