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.
THE WEEKDAY/WEEKEND divide is getting deeper and deeper. This tallies with my own straw polls, which I nearly always take when I speak on panels or at conferences. It tends to go something like this.
Audience: “Is social media killing journalism?”
Me: “Let’s do a survey – how many of you buy a paper during the week? Hands up.” [No hands.]
Me: “How many of you buy one or more papers during the weekend?” [Lots of hands.] So none of you get any news during the week apart from the evening news when you’re finished work?”
Audience: “Duh, we get it on the internet.”
Me: “And do you pay for any of it?”
Audience: “Eh, no.”
Me: “Do you see a connection between you not paying for news during the week and journalists losing their jobs, and the standard of journalism falling?”
Audience: “Oh. Yeah.”
Standage’s observations, Nel’s wager and my own haphazard surveys are actually fine behavioural analysis for a long-form, lean-back perspective. The way people consume news corresponds directly to how much competition there is for that time. During the week, most people have the capacity to ingest the what, where and when of the news before their attention spans burn out with all the other options available to them.
They’re commuting, worrying about that damn spreadsheet from the Indian tech team, thinking how Roz from HR is stiffing them on holiday entitlements, and checking whether Saturday night’s photos made it on to Facebook. They might skim some news, but that’s it. At the weekend, they’ll sit back and get into the how and why of a story, and luxuriate in the features section. Their mind is less cluttered. There’s less competition for their attention.
What does it mean for journalists who want to do long-form? It just means that the journalism has to be even more stand-out than ever to coax someone to either commit to it on a weekday or save it for later via Readability, Instapaper or something else. As an aspiring long-form journalist, you have two days in the week to get a reader to invest time in your material: Saturday and Sunday. So, be awesome, and be creative about distribution. One example of the latter is Marc Herman, one of a growing batch of journalists who are taking all those leftover words in their notepad and Twitter-addled brains and selling them as ebooks. Herman’s ebook from his trips to Libya during the revolution paid him more than the original commission.
The problem is, quality long-form reporters are increasingly rare, particularly among the junior ranks. In the same way weeds can choke the good bits of a garden, the proliferation of less-honed writers writing more often online has meant that the skills needed for good narrative writing have died off. It’s a lot easier to spit 250 words and a few embeds on to a page than it is to construct a proper story that will keep a reader hooked paragraph after paragraph for 3,000 words. Sarah Lacy, founder of Silicon Valley blog Pando Daily, says that they are committed to mentoring the young would-bes, but it ain’t going to be easy: “Unfortunately the last six years or so of commodity-free content on the web and shrinking newsrooms in old media has conspired to destroy the bench of good, investigative journalists and long-form storytellers. These simply aren’t disciplines you’re born with and there hasn’t been a demand to train people in it.”
I hope Lacy, and whoever else is still bankrolling good, in-depth reporting can pull it off. Like most people, I don’t do in-depth during the week, to a large extent, unless I really need a switch-off. But on a Saturday and a Sunday I’ll buy the papers for a handful of heavy feature articles. I’ll lean back with a coffee in a comfy chair and soak it up. I’ll scour my Twitter list of longform sources, pick one and immerse. Longform is for weekends, holidays, commuting delays and bouts of insomnia. The format doesn’t matter. It might be an article on the design of the human penis that I’ve stored on Readability, or a new Gonzo journalism project from Greece that I’ve downloaded via Kindle, or just a hefty piece on Hipstamatic’s hipster panic that Flipboard spat out at me. It just has to be good enough to hold my attention. Because if it fails in the first 400 words, there’s another half dozen things queued up on my phone ready for reading.
But here’s the thing. The two days a week where I sit back and hoover up lengthy news truffles are the minority. The rest of the week I’m in search of the subtle skim, the best-curated bit that helps me digest news in a time-efficient manner.
THE PROFILE of Joe Weisenthal spawned a lively debate when the NYT published it. A journalism professor from Florida called Weisenthal’s modus operandi out on several footings. He said that Weisenthal’s work was too short, too prolific and too inaccurate at times to be something to aspire to, and that Weisenthal was on a short path to burnout and had no life. Students should aspire to be more like the late Anthony Shadid, who immersed himself in his topic and wrote at length. Shadid was a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for the New York Times. He died from an asthma attack in February this year in Syria.
Weisenthal’s boss backed him to the hilt in response, saying that Weisenthal (best business journalist of the year in 2011, by the way) was not trying to be an Anthony Shadid. He was fulfilling his brief, a rolling, non-stop index of need-to-know info for Business Insider’s readership, presented in entertaining form. And his boss agrees that he’s insanely good at it.
The world needs Weisenthals and Shadids to fill a news week, probably in a 5:2 ratio. To be a Weisenthal or a Shadid means being gainfully employed, producing consistently top-quality journalism in your chosen sector bar none, and breaking your ass to do it. All of those items are things to aspire to. And depending of the day of the week, both are worth reading.