Is it lights out for the long read?
As readers and journalists spend so much of their week as ‘thumb-twitching, social-media junkies’ where’s the time to enjoy the in-depth, lengthy articles – and who will be left to write them? The future of the media could rely on finding the answers
IF WORKING in social media news has done one thing to me, it has done its best to screw my attention span. (Thankfully, it’s not irrevocable – I prescribe a long-form article a day.) Going by the umpteen laments and half-assed social-media-rehab attempts by prominent tweeters, I’m not alone.
Joe Weisenthal, known as @TheStalwart on Twitter, confesses that he can’t sleep at night due to the fear he might miss something that he should be writing and tweeting about.
A New York Times profile that describes Weisenthal’s work-day says that his 15 or so daily articles are paralleled by a constant presence on Twitter (88,723 tweets and counting). He seems to work 17 hours in a non-stop frenzy of three-way communication. “And all the while he holds a running conversation with the roughly 19,000 people who follow his Twitter alter ego, the Stalwart,” the article says. “He spars, jokes, asks and answers questions, advertises his work and, in the spirit of our time, reports on his meals, his whereabouts and whatever else is on his mind.”
Weisenthal’s profile is held up as describing what real-time journalism has become, a mind-bending, frenetic, sleep-deprived hamster wheel. Weisenthal recently profiled another speed-news freak, Kevin Reynolds, who runs Bloomberg’s “speed desk”, which doesn’t take its name from amphetamines. Reynolds runs what is considered the world’s best smash-and-grab news-filtering operation in the world. They offer the quickest turnaround, the most market-moving nugget of news in any given situation, and they jangle their nerves in the process. As Weisenthal explains: “If you think that the internet has killed your attention span, then feel pity for Reynolds: ‘I have no attention span . . . by the time I leave here, someone has to explain comic books to me.’ ”
If you’re a thumb-twitching social-media junkie, the chances are you’re consuming your news in a headline-chugging way, downing intro paras like a frat boy downs Jagermeister shots. That’s the way that Weisenthal and Reynolds churn it out – at a livid pace. The antithesis to this staccatoed news consumption is good, long, exploratory hunks of journalism, the kind of thing that sticks with you for days.
At the News Rewired digital journalism conference in February this year, there were two standout observations from a panel on paid-for content models (read: the alchemy that is making actual money from journalism). One came from François Nel, an academic who made a striking wager in the middle of his meandering presentation. He bet that within five years the New York Times would abandon paper on weekdays and only print a real inky paper on the weekend.
The likelihood of this hypothetical was backed up by stats presented by Tom Standage from the Economist. Standage said that the Economist’s guilty secret was that “the main reason people cancel their subscriptions with the Economist is that they don’t have time to read it, and it just piles up and they feel guilty”. That’s print subscriptions, by the way, not digital. Magazines piled unread in a corner exert shame in a way that the iPad has yet to mimic.
Standage followed up his comments on the Economist’s time-poor customers by saying those who consume the magazine through their app tend to take between one and three hours on the weekend to sift through its content at length, getting through a staggering volume of content. That behaviour is at odds with weekday interaction, which is largely via web and much more fleeting. It’s that lean-back phenomenon you don’t get Monday to Friday. You don’t lean back at your desk, where you’re meant be looking busy, and you don’t lean back during your commute.