My latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center begs sportswriters to slow down and do less — and it seems to have hit a nerve. (As always with my sportswriting columns, the lessons apply equally to any other journalist.)
The genesis of this column came back in the fall, when Nieman Reports published a look at beat writing in the digital age, including my own somewhat emo musings on being caught between indie blogging and fandom on the one hand and professional journalism and neutrality on the other. Elsewhere in the report, I read my NSJC colleague Dave Kindred’s exploration of how sportswriters’ beats had changed because of the web and Twitter. Kindred opened with Wally Matthews, now of ESPN New York, explaining how the beat writers would race to be first to tweet the lineup once a team posted it on the dugout wall. A Denver Post Broncos beat writer, Lindsay Jones, was able to top that bit of ridiculousness: Reporters can’t use cellphones from the Broncos’ practice facility, so they have to run out of the stadium to be first to tweet something. (By the way, fans watching practice can tweet their thumbs off. Is there an organization more in love with stupid rules than the NFL?)
Some things send you rushing to the keyboard, inspired or indignant; others have to simmer. The two Nieman pieces nagged at me all fall and winter, until I finally was able to articulate what bothered me. Those beat writers weren’t technology rejectionists: They’d embraced new tools, and were working their butts off. Yet their lives were worse — web publishing, blogs and Twitter had only added to the burdens of an already tough job. Why? Because they were using those new tools to do things the old way. Someone had sold them a bill of goods.
I don’t follow one Mets beat writer or another on Twitter — I follow all of them. They’re part of a collective flow of news, one I dip into to get news when I need it. Do I want to know tonight’s lineup? Of course. Do I care who had it first? No. Do I notice who had it first? No. With Twitter the question’s faintly ridiculous, in fact. Twitter embodies The And World, in which I get news from as many sources as I can take in and the flow is the important thing, not the component streams. I’d like to think I chose a crummy metaphor on purpose — there really aren’t individual elements of a flow, are there?
Those beat writers were using Twitter as if this were still The Or World, in which I’m going to buy Paper A or Paper B based on who has a scoop on the front page. Today I consume Papers A, B, C, D and so on. And as for scoops, 99% of them have shelf lives so short that for all intents and purposes they no longer exist.
Too much of what Kindred found those beat writers doing is a waste of time. So why are they doing it? I suspect it’s a combination of things. There’s a culture of competitiveness and adrenaline, which isn’t a bad thing so much as it’s a good impulse wastefully channeled. Habit and tradition are part of it too, I’m sure. I suspect it’s also fear, on multiple levels — higher-ups shoved writers down new media pathways, writers were too intimidated by desperate times in the news business who question whether that was the best use of their time, and working harder is always easier to demonstrate than working smarter.
What should those beat writers do instead of competing for mayfly-lived scoops? My advice came down to “Worry a lot less about being first with the news and worry a lot more about being first with what the news means.” Then my column elicited a sharp, smart follow-up from Craig Calcaterra of HardballTalk — and one of Calcaterra’s commenters absolutely nailed it, far better than I did.
Like you said, I don’t care who told me first. It’s not like I wasn’t going to find out. Whenever I get a bit of news, whether it’s at ESPN, HBT, Twitter, or any of the other places where you can get news, one of my first reactions is usually “Hey, I wonder what that goofball Calceterra has to say about that.”
And then I come here.
BANG. There it is — the elusive sweet spot. Be the place readers turn to find out what that bit of news means. Do that, and you’ll have an audience and a brand. And a future.
Last weekend New York Times editor Bill Keller spoke at Boston University’s 2010 narrative conference, and offered a rigorous defense of long-form stories. (As well as saying the Times wants to “kick the shit out of Rupert Murdoch.” Well then.)
As I’ve written before, I’m on Keller’s side in this one: I maintain that there will be renewed interest in long-form journalism, principally because it’s hard to copy or briefly summarize. Yet, for all that, I think Keller’s attempts to shoot down three “perceived existential threats” to narrative writing missed the mark a bit. (Caveats: I’d expect Keller to be in rally-the-troops mode at such a conference, and I’m not working off his actual remarks.)
Keller’s first threat: the decline of publishing and economic stresses that have shrunk newsrooms and dumbed down copy. His proof that this isn’t true is the Times’ collaboration with ProPublica on its Pulitzer-winning investigative story of death in post-Katrina New Orleans. I’m glad that wonderful story exists, and applaud ProPublica’s work not just to tell great stories but to create great tools for other news organizations. But if I’d told you 10 years ago that the Times would win a Pulitzer in partnership with a non-profit news organization, your reaction probably wouldn’t have been, “What a great new avenue for journalism!” Rather, I bet it would have been something along the lines of “What’s happened that the Times needs to partner with someone?” ProPublica exists because the Sandlers saw that accountability journalism was imperiled.
Keller’s second threat is the idea that people don’t read anymore, a statement made two years ago by Steve Jobs. Keller notes that the Times’ long-form stories are mainstays of the paper’s list of most emailed articles, and gets off a great line to that effect: “Not only has the Web not killed narrative, but it’s pushed it out to people who don’t have home delivery.” Now, laying this at Jobs’s feet is good for an ironic twist, given the hopes people have for the iPad, but it’s worth remembering that Jobs made those comments as part of an attack on the Kindle. Denigrating not just a product but an entire product category is pretty much SOP for Jobs when a new Apple product has reached the twinkle-in-his-eye phase. And while I stubbornly maintain people will read great stories in any medium — ink, pixels, skywriting, cuneiform — it is true that the Web has made people into ruthless readers, with fingers hovering over the back button. As Keller notes, the iPad, the Kindle and the Nook all encourage more intimate, leisurely reading, but they aren’t going to unwind that basic ruthlessness.
Keller’s third threat is that crowdsourcing and user-generated content is degrading newspapers’ authority. Here, I think Keller undermined his case by saying that “if I need my appendix out, I’m not going to go to a citizen surgeon.” That’s a lazy metaphor that Keller’s too smart for: A lot of journalism isn’t surgery. I wouldn’t go to a citizen surgeon, but I do rely on some very talented citizen journalists for my Brooklyn news, and while I like the Times’ Mets beat writer, citizen journalists are my first stop for Mets news. (Heck, I’m one of them.) Those are parts of the Times franchise where professional journalists have been superseded and must share authority, respectively. And saying Wikipedia and Digg can’t compare to a writer’s voice that “no algorithm can imitate” is pretty wide of the mark — people are the engine that drives Wikipedia and Digg.
I don’t mean to make too much of this: I agree with Keller in most respects. But long-form journalism isn’t easy, and only succeeds — regardless of the medium — in the hands of expert practitioners. Newsrooms are smaller, people read ruthlessly online, and plenty of terrific writing and even reporting is being created by people outside the traditional journalism ranks. In championing long-form narrative, we need to keep these things in mind.
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Speaking of long-form narrative, here’s something I wrote at Faith and Fear in Flushing about the untimely death of my neighbor’s brother, and what I discovered sorting through his baseball-card collection. Hope you like it.
No, says Josh Tyrangiel, Time.com’s managing editor, telling Beet.tv in this short video interview that “long-form journalism online, much as I wish it were thriving, is not.”
Yes, says Gerald Marzorati, editor of the New York Times Magazine, telling Times readers that “contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s our longest pieces that attract the most online traffic.”
The two very different answers were noted by Jim Romenesko yesterday. So which is it?
I’m sure both men are correct. But then they’re serving very different audiences.
Tyrangiel says Time.com’s goal “is to make people smarter by saving them time,” and his portrait of a Web reader is someone at work between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., looking for the news with lunch on the desk, the boss at the door and the voice-mail light blinking on the phone.
Tyrangiel is obviously zeroed in on serving that reader, as he should be, which makes his statements sound a touch absolutist. For that kind of reader, of course longer-form stories like the ones in the print version of Time aren’t going to do well. But this isn’t the only kind of reader, and the same reader may act differently in the middle of the workday than he or she does at other times. Marzorati’s readers are more likely to be reading on Friday night or the weekend, and unlike Time.com, the Times magazine isn’t radically different online than it is in print. Marzorati’s readers are more likely to know what they’re getting, and to want and even expect stories they can engage with over a longer period of time.
So — as is so often the case on the Web — the answer is that different parts of the audience want different things, and a publisher may well wind up having to serve everybody.
This is a pretty brief post so far; were I to heed Tyrangiel’s warning, I’d quit right here. But having a weakness for goat-chokers myself, I’ll add a couple of caveats.
First off, I suspect the real question about long-form journalism isn’t whether it works online or not, but to ask how often it works at all. This isn’t to dismiss the form, but to note simply (if a bit cynically) that many more people will read a lousy 4oo-word story than a lousy 4,000-word one.
The best long-form journalism kills in any medium — witness this Tommy Craggs takedown of Luddite baseball announcer Joe Morgan, this Michael Lewis look back at the financial meltdown, or this Nick Kristof and Sarah WuDunn cri de coeur about women’s rights, from last week’s Times magazine. (I read it online, by the way.) But the best long-form journalism is very hard to do, and correspondingly rare.
On the other hand, it’s also very valuable. Good long-form journalism offers online publications a crucial competitive advantage: It’s very hard or impossible to copy. In a world awash in commoditized news, this is a big selling point, which is one reason I have faith that long-form journalism will be more important to Web publishers a couple of years from now than it is today.
But long-form journalism isn’t easy, and it will always be risky. Tyrangiel is absolutely right to observe that “online, you can be anywhere, anytime” — let the reader’s attention wander and they’re off somewhere else, never to return. And the reader has to know what he or she is getting into.
Therein lies a cautionary tale. Years ago (as the story was told to me), a reporter was sitting in the airport and realized a man sitting nearby had started reading the reporter’s very ambitious, in-depth front-page story. The reporter leaned in unobserved, and watched in fascination as the man took in each paragraph on the front page. The reader was enthralled, he realized — he sat bolt upright and even began saying things like “wow” under his breath. Turn to the jump, the reporter thought. Don’t read the rest of the front page. Turn to the jump.
To the reporter’s delight, the man did just that — only to be confronted by the rest of the story, which took up a full double-truck. He looked paralyzed for a moment, exclaimed “Oh, shit!” — and closed the paper. Want to see the same effect online? Watch what happens when an unwary reader scrolls to the bottom of a first screen and sees 2 3 4 5 6 7 all hyperlinked.