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How to plan a site for low-literacy adults? Maureen Skowran (I/AV Room)

Maurreen Skowran is a former copy editor at the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer. Last year she moved to Albuquerque, N.M. She's now working part-time at the Albuquerque Journal as a copy editor. She is working on developing a newsletter for homeless people. She realized quickly that there is news or media gap in Albuquerque. Low-literacy adults need ways to access the news and important civic information. She believes this is a national issue, and she has proposed a Knight News Challenge project to trial a solution for Albuquerque.


  • Sam Kimball
  • Bill Densmore
  • Maurreen Skowran



  • The name is going to be EZ ABQ.
  • Propose that legacy media support EQ ABQ's effort to produce a "low-literacy" version, such as with rights to stories or printing.
      --They could reach a different audience

What are the steps to get to where you are going

  • Hire multimedia journalist
  • Develop the site -- probably a WordPress theme -- do usability testing
  • Connect with funding community in Albuquerque. -- Bill says this is very important. Also consider a fiscal sponsor.
  • Rent office

What needs will be fulfilled

What difference will the project make

  • One measurement might be able many people wrote in?

How will it be sustained?

  • Probably donations and advertising


Q: What does this have to do with the digital divide?

  • Skowran: People on the lower level of the economic spectrum -- more than 10 years ago, they can get physical access to the Internet via libraries at work or elsewhere. But for low-literacy adults, it is more overwhelming. A lot of sites are fairly complex and there is also document complexity. Newspapers are easier to read than websites, because websites have complex organization.

Skowran cites Jakob Nielsen and his work on web usability. He has studied low-literacy adult usability issues to some degree. Low-literacy adults have to plow through one word at a time.

Q: How would pages look?

  • Skowran: There would be an icon on each page representing the subject matter of a page. Only three to six icons on a page. It might take folks longer to get to the page they want, but they will understand how they got there. There's always a home button on every page.

Q: What need will this fulfill?

  • Skowran: People will be able to get information they weren't able to get before. There is a national newspaper called News for You, from the New Readers Press, which has some stuff online, that does approach this challenge somewhat.

Media tends to write about disadvantaged (whether by income or literacy) people, but not for them or to them, Skowran says. Also, a lot of people who are low-literate -- you might not know that; some are more successful than is expected.

Action steps

  • Skowran relates her project to the theories in Clayton Christiansen's "The Innovators' Dilemma," work. Although the project's impetus is a civic services, it also has a business advantage, by drawing in low-end consumers and nonconsumers. The market can grow with the product.

How would this work?

  • Skowran: An example of how we might approach a story -- There was a vote in January about whether an area south of Albuquerque would become its own city. She thought it would have been interesting, if they were operating, to make simple sample ballots that illustrated the issue from a voting perspective. Also, on some pages you would choose your way into the information you need, based on following the icons. If you are on a story there will be some amount of text and some amount of pictures.

There might comic-book stories. She'll use infographics -- but simple infographics.

Q: How much original content vs. condensing things?

  • Skowran: In general she expects it will all be original. She could imagine working out rights arrangements with the Albuquerque Journal and some other organizations.

Her rough plan is there would be three people on staff:

    • One is the rewrite editor and community liason. She will simplify language and make sure there is an interaction with the audience, publicize the project and do quality assurance from their perspective.
    • Second person is the multimedia journalist. They will be mostly visually oriented and an adequate to competent reporter.
    • Third person (Skowran) will be the editor and publisher. She will be doing some of the reporting, most of the editing, and working with the community, the audience and donors and potential donors.
    • The staffing would be similar to a tiny weekly. But it will be all or mainly digital, and it would have daily news.

Q: What about working with the Duke City Fix? Perhaps EZABQ could get rights to Duke City Fix copy and would simplify it. Also other local alternative media.

  • Skowran: Will look into that.


Skowran originally planned only a Web site. But other options are print and phone.

Print would help with publicity, and is probably more accessible, gets better ad rates.

Phone could be one or both of "smart phone" access, voice or text. Skowran thinks the target audience is likely to have more access to phones in general and cell phones in particular. But she is concerned that delivery via phone (other than just shrinking target screen size) might be more complicated than is suitable for the audience.

Wider audience?

Bill Densmore likened the project to Readers' Digest (fanatic commitment to easy reading), and suggested that EZ ABQ could appeal to people who want easy reading / media, even if they can read more-complex material.