What Newspapers Should Do: Gist and Juice
I’m sure I’m not the first to say it, but there’s so much hand-wringing going on about the future of newspapers in the Second Age of the Internet I thought I would throw in my two cents: Newspapers need to treat print and online as two different audiences, and cater for them accordingly. It’s about getting the word out, not getting a product out.
The rule is a simple one: Newspapers are for people who love to read, and want something in a format and depth they can take with them. They are looking for layout, nuance, photos, details, rich writing and analysis. In short: Storytelling.
Online, meanwhile, is for getting up to speed quickly. It’s information as briefing. Tell me what I need to know so I can get on with my day. In short, it’s short, to the point: for people who don’t like (or don’t have time) to read.
It’s not just about brevity for the sake of speed. People don’t like reading lots of text online, so it’s obvious that writing for the Internet is best done short and to the point. (This, incidentally, is one reason why blogs are so successful: Bite-sized chunks that deliver something that fits nicely on the average computer screen. Sure there are some bloggers who write essays, and write them beautifully, but most blog postings are short and to the point.)
But this doesn’t necessarily mean putting a few paragraphs on the net, or a teaser or two, and then a link to the full-blown story on a subscribe-only website. What is online still needs to be as comprehensive a product as the newspaper would offer its hardcopy readers. It just needs to be shorter, and, as I’ve said elsewhere [WSJ.com link: Subscription only, I’m afraid], formatted in a more imaginative way than merely a vague pastiche of a newspaper with a few HTML tricks thrown in. (Think newsmaps.) It’s intriguing to see newspapers, including my own paymaster The Asian Wall Street Journal, toy with formats; when is the same big thinking about format going to happen online?
Online content needs to be short and sharp. That doesn’t mean dumbing it down to wire service copy or wire service- style writing; it means reducing the amount of text to something manageable in an online format. So, say a piece on Medium being the new Large (something I just read in the still excellent The Guardian) could be delivered online as a briefer piece, the main point summed up in a paragraph with the main examples to back it up. Not necessarily pretty, but just because it’s a feature doesn’t mean it a) isn’t useful information and b) has to be feature-length to convey its meaning.
The newspaper reader is still going to prefer the full length version. There’s something delightful and serendipitous about reading a thoughtful newspaper like The Guardian in its entirety (or the International Herald Tribune, another coffee-time favourite despite, or perhaps because of, its quixotic choice of stories). There’ll still be a market for that, whatever the size of the paper it’s printed on. But how many of us get time to read these papers cover to cover every day?
The Internet needs to be a faster mechanism to get that same rush of interesting fact and insight that reading a newspaper cover to cover offers. The journalists who write the material may baulk at seeing their lovingly crafted 3,000 words reduced to 300, but they shouldn’t grumble. The offline world will still see their 3,000 words and, if the editing is good, the online reader will still get the gist, if not the juice, of their writing. It’s no longer about one product delivered from an ivory tour. It’s about getting the word out.