The Context of Content, in the Back of a Fast-moving Cab

By | June 4, 2009


I was reading The Wall Street Journal in a cab on a BlackBerry just now and I realised what’s wrong with print media. It still hasn’t got that not everything is going to be read in a newspaper.

See this story about Gordon Brown. It might look good as the main story on the front page, but it looks and reads all wrong pretty much anywhere else:

U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, beset by scandals and sniping from within his own party, on Wednesday faced a battle for political survival just two years after ascending to the country’s top post.

Mr. Brown’s fortunes, already slumping in recent months amid Britain’s deep recession, have spiraled downward in recent days, hit by a series of political nightmares. Several top officials in the government of Mr. Brown’s ruling Labour Party have been caught up in the embarrassing revelations about dubious expenses claimed by U.K. politicians of all stripes.

And it goes on it that vein for another dozen paragraphs. They’e all good paragraphs—I know, I’ve written or edited hundreds like them over 20 years–earnestly written and no doubt earnestly edited by a bevy of subs. But they’re not contextual to me, in the sense that they’re not how I want to get my information bumping along in a cab driven by a guy arguing with his wife on the phone at 10 pm on a Thursday evening.

Why not? Well, the truth is that this style of writing—thoughtful, ponderous, with lots of subordinate clauses–is stuck in the dark ages of journalism. Valiant efforts at freshness—beset, sniping, political survival, ascending, top post, fortunes, slumping, amid, spiraled, downward, hit, political nightmares, caught up, embarrassing revelations, dubious, all stripes—sound turgid and forced, merely highlighting how far journalistic writing has departed from the way that we speak.

Not that we ever really spoke like this, but in the old days it didn’t matter. Because then news was scarce, and us journalists were like monks/nuns or doctors, permitted our own way of communicating. And the pomposity of a newspaper somehow made pompous language more fitting.

But nowadays this sort of writing just looks, frankly, archaic. And because it’s so far from the way we speak, it is unsuited for the way that we likely read it—on BlackBerrys, on the net, on scrolling tickers, on Tweetdeck.

The language of journalism, in short, needs to catch up with the fact that we consume it now in dozens of different ways. A self-respecting radio or TV editor would re-write copy so it sounds realistic when spoken. Why is the same not being done for newspaper content?

Contextualized content—in every sense–is the future of media, I have no doubt. But some of that has to do with making the actual content something that is suited to the device upon which it’s being absorbed. A smart editor should be rewriting this stuff so that it sits well on the devices it is being pushed to.

The value of content lies, in part, in its sensitivity, for want of a better word, to the environment in which it is devoured (OK, consumed, but I try to avoid that word.)

If you don’t believe me try reading a good blog post on a portable device, and then compare it to something like the above.

U.K.’s Brown Faces Battle for Political Survival –

4 thoughts on “The Context of Content, in the Back of a Fast-moving Cab

  1. Eric

    Maybe you’re right that it’s language from the dark ages of journalism. But maybe, actually, from the bright ages of language.

    Anyone who tries to glean an understanding of the world via a postage-stamp-sized screen in the back of a noisy cab will in fact never understand the world. The small screen is OK to relate quick headlines to someone who already has the context, or to relate bird-cage-liner news about passing events that don’t matter. But the real world’s context is complex enough to require careful reading of many nuanced texts from various sources. Nothing else will do or has in the world’s history ever done. Period.

  2. Robin

    Eric, I can’t help feeling life should be nuanced and journalism should be clear. And I suspect you’d agree that even on a black and white screen purple writing remains purple. If Jeremy’s right here, and with this example he certainly seems to be, then his post serves as a reminder that quality is everything. Perhaps one of the reasons newspapers are falling apart so fast is that having control of the publishing tools for so long has made them forget that they still need to get the basics right. They still need to produce a better quality news product than anyone else, no matter where it ends up.

  3. Jeremy Wagstaff

    Eric, I might have been unnecessarily harsh on this piece of writing: For newspaper journalism, it’s actually fine. But my point is that this kind of writing was designed to be read in a certain format, and yet most readers are not going to be reading it there. We can’t go around blaming the user for this. The newspaper is dying not only because of collapsed business models but because of changing work- and lifestyles. People just do not have time to take all their information in long form anymore.

    Your suggestion that people getting their news in the back of a cab on a device the size of postage-stamp ‘will in fact never understand the world’ is missing the point: In a world where information is competing for our attention the equation is different. Where once it was the information was scarce, now it’s our attention. So we consumers can’t be blamed for giving information our attention whenever and wherever we can.

    So it’s traditional media’s job–if it still wants a job–to find a way to provide that nuance in a way that is tailored to the context in which it is consumed. Just as we spend decades honing our styles of writing, from newswire to long-form newspaper feature, we now need to figure out a way to provide quality products for each segment of our market. And those segments are defined, as they were before, by the format of the device they are received upon.

    This is not particularly surprising. Back in the 1990s the WSJ cut back the length of many of its stories. In the mid 2000s it did so again when it abandoned broadsheet for compact. What’s surprising to me is that most newspapers have not taken the next step of looking for better ways of delivering the same nuance and quality to these new, postage-stamp-size formats.

  4. Pingback: Is where you read more important than what you read? : Greenough

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