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A Language Beat

I’ve been circulating a proposal to create a language beat at a newspaper or a magazine, a staff (or superstringer) position dedicated to writing stories about language. The idea is outside the box, or between boxes — the stories don’t necessarily fall in one section. So sometimes they’d be education, at other times business, at other times entertainment.

The basic idea is that language is a beat as much as business or health or education are. It requires knowledge of the topic and a host of sources across a wide ranging group of disciplines and institutions. Unfortunately, most reporters bring to their language reporting the same biases, ideologies, and myths that most in their audiences have. As a result, narrow ideas about language get reinforced. Even more dramatically, there are opportunities to do amazing writing, storytelling, and reporting that get missed. Not that I want more competition in this area, but my goal is to advance the discourse about language in the US — to give people new ways to talk about language as a structure, as a commodity, and as a building block of identity.

Here’s the proposal:

Goal: A language beat

I want to create a language-focused beat at a newspaper or magazine, to write feature stories at the intersection of language and business, law, policy, technology, business, entertainment, and science. Language is a more prominent topic of everyday concern and conversation because of global economics, shifting US demographics, new science and technologies, immigration, and the war on terror. A new census only 3 years away will depict, again, an increasingly multilingual landscape. Most of all, language lends itself to good storytelling, with interesting characters who right now are shaping the ways Americans talk, read, and think about themselves in terms of language.

However, no outlets have a language beat. Only a few newspapers have language columnists, but these are mavens and grammarians, not journalists who can break news. Readers can get language commentary on blogs (some of which are very good), but no reporting or storytelling. And language is, in fact, a beat: there are experts and literature to know, a range of subareas to follow. Writing language stories requires experience and expertise that general assignment reporters (who write most language-related stories) do not possess, leading to missed opportunities to break stories, infelicities of facts, and overlooking key sources and perspectives. Such a beat also lends itself to new media: People love to hear other people’s voices, especially when they speak differently (e.g., podcasts of people saying commonly accepted words that used to be obscene), and various types of language data make for compelling graphics.

If you want to hear more, get in touch.