Print Journalism And Web Journalism: Different Sons Of The Same Mother

MEDIA MUCKRAKING

Online newsAn interesting opinion was advanced recently by Bob Cohn, editor of Atlantic Digitalwith which I am currently having a journalistic love affair. (The Atlantic is doing an industry-leading job of mastering both print and digital platforms, both short- and long-form content.)

Atlantic pullquote 2Cohn says journalism values for the web are quickly merging with those for print. To which I say: Amen, brother. If all of us as journalists are not already consistently writing, proofing and source-attributing online copy with a comparable level of care and detail that we give to print, we should be making plans to do so soon.

Two other passages in Cohn’s piece stuck out at me:

Online Design. “As recently as five years ago,” Cohn writes, “the web was mostly about text.” But today, urged on by multimedia presentations like the New York Times’ now-legendary and award-winning Snow Fall feature, “enterprising treatment in the service of storytelling, once the province of print, has edged into the digital mainstream.” A big shout-out for the emerging visual web here. Text by necessity was the initial backbone of the early Internet – in fact, its entire search function is based of course on semantics – but with virtually every web user now on a big-screen monitor or laser-sharp smartphone or tablet display, you appreciate those images. And even better when those visuals are animated – a big edge over print.

Quality Can Trump Quantity. “A lot of us,” Cohn notes – meaning, formerly print-oriented media organizations – tried to compete on volume once they were faced with sudden competition from churn-and-turn daily news sites. So the Atlantic “played with the quantity-quality matrix: Could we draw more readers by publishing fewer posts, if those posts prized original analysis and creative thinking?” They found that the “quickie aggregation post” can still go viral but that “it’s been refreshing to confirm that, on the web, as in print, quality, however it might be defined or measured, is the ultimate driver of success.”

And this to me is how beyond-the-news media organizations compete with the minute-by-minute global spew of rip-it-and-read-it news bulletins: When a million Lilliputian websites can echo in seconds a dispatch from the (free) global news syndicates, the answer is not just to do the same – or worse, to turn a media organization upside down in a remaking as a daily news producer. The answer, as always, is to create that valuable angle or analysis or context to a story that simply can’t be found anywhere else. The answer is to become a 21st-century hybrid of newsgatherer, aggregator and blogger.

Yes, content is king – and so is originality.

Back when the Internet first collided with media it was fashionable to note that “this changes everything” – that online publishing would be a whole new animal of a different stripe. But did it? And is it? Completely? Cohn notes that at the Atlantic, “digital writers are doing stories for the monthly magazine; print editors are running web projects.” More and more the same thing is happening in media organizations everywhere.

Methinks that no matter what the delivery “substrate” – whether wood pulp print or quartz computer chips – good journalism is good journalism, helpful context is helpful context, quality content is quality content. And that should gladden the heart of any content producer  – print and/or web.

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Is Your Audience Fast-Forwarding to the 30% Point of Your Content?

CONTENT CAREERING

FFLet me know if this has ever NOT happened to you.

In your own reading you’re tooling along until you come across a headline that promises instant benefits – say, “7 Tips on Vacationing in Hawaii for Less Than $1000.”

Yes! you think. Tell me how! And then you start to read the lead:

“Emily Smith works a stressful job as a nurse in Blytheville, Mo. Rarely does she get a chance for a getaway vacation, what with her job; her home responsibilities; her husband Gaylord; her three children Vera, Chuck and Dave…”

Huh? you think. Who cares about Emily Smith?

You’ve just been struck by the superfluous lead – the personal anecdote many journalism consultants have espoused as a way to “humanize” a (what they might think to be boring) story. In other examples you might be offered a juicy little bon mot – a witty bit of sociological or historical observation to open things up. In this case you’ve also been had by author-throat-clearing.

When I come across leads like these I want to pull out my red grease pencil, slice an “X” through the first three paragraphs and bark at the unseen author (from under my editor’s green eyeshade, of course): “Just get to the point!” Not that these little openers are always mind-drags, mind you. In the right situations they might be just the thing to pull the reader in. But more often than not, you’re probably better to cut to the chase and deliver on the headline’s promise quickly.

By the way the propensity of content types to be long on the windup is not isolated to text, as has been noted by online trolls and digerati. In video the Wadsworth Constant is based on the phenomenon that the first 30% of most videos are perfunctory and of little value. Such leather-lunged videos are perceived to be so widespread, in fact, that there is a “bookmarklet” that jumps a viewer straight to the 30% point of any YouTube video.

Are our audiences skipping to the 30% point of our content? Let’s hope not. But the next time I’m nipping-and-tucking a story into a small space, I won’t necessarily start at the end of the story or even the middle. I’ll start at the beginning.

(And maybe I needed to have done that with this very post…)