The new internet vomit
A journalist has written a story complaining newspaper stories are too long.
He says people like their stories short. Punchy. That’s why newspapers are dying, he says. That’s why the internet is alive.
The story was written by Michael Kinsley. A columnist for The Atlantic. Mr Kinsley complains that a 1,456 word report in The New York Times, on Obama’s health reforms, was too long. Mr Kinsley’s article, complaining about journalistic “verbiage”, ran to 1,940 words.
Mr Kinsley says journalists who provide context and scene-setting are the dinosaurs of the new media age.
He targets this introductory sentence from a Times story which appeared in November:
Handing President Obama a hard-fought victory, the House narrowly approved a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system on Saturday night, advancing legislation that Democrats said could stand as their defining social policy achievement.
Mr Kinsley argues ordinary people, when discussing the news of the day, have no interest in the broader political context. He says they don’t want to know that there’s been “a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system”.
He says what they really want to know is: “The House passed health-care reform last night.”
I don’t think I’m one of Mr Kinsley’s people. I don’t even think Mr Kinsley believes it, or he wouldn’t have taken 1,940 words to make his point.
Writing short, hard news is a real skill. Writing longer stories which unravel, and provide context, and don’t give the reader two black eyes in the first five seconds is also a skill.
Neither form is superior. Both styles will always exist, no matter what Mr Kinsley and others say.
Does Mr Kinsley think that when people start paying for their on-line news, as they soon will, that they will want only short, précised news?
Having been spoiled by free news for so long, people will expect more than ever in their paid subscriptions - a mix of hard news and feature stories, plus numerous other inducements (photo galleries, video, music and even advertising).
And if the inquisitive public don’t get context and back story from one source, they will look to another to provide it.
If the internet is slowly pounding its hammer to the head of newspapers, it has nothing to do with the demand for brevity, but the demand for more.
In newspapers, whether broadsheet or tabloid, reporters have to work within pre-determined space allocations for their stories.
But internet sites are far from being the home of punchy information. They are not space-limited and often lack self-control.
There’s a bloke who writes a blog that is linked to Crikey. He’s not a journalist, but the readers wouldn’t know that. He gets on the phone now and then and speaks to town council-types and relates every word – I mean every word – they say.
He colours the quotes in red.
He does this because, in his mind, he thinks it’s dishonest to deny his readers a single word (not that he ever rings anyone who might disagree with the line he’s pushing).
This bloke gets no apparent subbing. He’s not challenged by his editors. He represents the new internet vomit.
This is the writing that will fail in the online news age.
Once people start paying for news, sites such as Crikey are going to suffer. People are only going to commit to one or maybe two genuine on-line news providers. Other subscriptions will be cancelled as an unnecessary expense.
Online news sites will need to maintain standards because nothing on-line is ever expunged from the public record – everything that’s written is out there, somewhere. The potential for law suits – and the demands for accuracy - will be high.
The main adjustment will be whether people can actually enjoy the on-line reading experience. But I would suspect that fewer and fewer of us are hitting the print button when confronted by a longish on-line yarn.
Journalists and stories, of all shapes and sizes, are not finished with yet.
Mr Kinsley concludes: “On the first day of my first real job in journalism—on the copy desk at the Royal Oak Daily Tribune in Royal Oak, Michigan—the chief copy editor said, ‘Remember, every word you cut saves the publisher money.’ At the time, saving the publisher money didn’t strike me as the world’s noblest ideal. These days, for anyone in journalism, it’s more compelling.”
Any journalist who sets off writing a story of the basis of saving their publisher money, whether in print or on-line, is a disgrace to journalism and should be taken to the back alley behind the pub and pummelled by his colleagues.
This story has been completed in 782 words.
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