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The Journalism Myth of Endless Online Space

September 17th, 2018 · No Comments · Journalism, Sports Journalism

One of the sops thrown out at print journalism reporters at the dawn of the digital age was this one:

“You can write as long as you want!”

That was supposed to allay the fears of reporters and other writers who were alarmed at the shrinking newspaper. The print product. Less space all the time, fewer column inches to tell a story.

What we called “news hole” has been shrinking for decades, after peaking some time in the 1990s, at most newspapers. In the span of a decade we went from Sunday-morning newspapers the family dog could not hope to fetch … to miniaturized, thin, narrow and incomplete products.

The original response to the shift to the online was … write a terse news story and do it in 10 or 12 inches. That little thing will appear in the shriveled print product … and then the reporter can go back to writing as much as he or she wanted — and the complete/expanded version would be posted online.

That was how it was supposed to work. How it could work.

However, like so many aspects of electronic journalism, it wasn’t true. Or accurate. And as the years go by, it becomes less true all the time — as consumers increasingly prefer short-short-short stories on the tiny format of smart phones for consuming their news.

I always liked the idea of long stories. Features and profiles, certainly, but even more-generic events. Thirty-five years ago, maybe 40, a colleague at my first newspaper wrote 48 inches on a USC football game. I think it was at Cal. That was something like 1,500 words.

Thing was, that writers was good enough to write 48 inches of colorful prose backed by meaningful quotes, out of a four-hour game, and still keep many readers with him till the end.

But game stories of that length slowly went away, sliding to maybe 20 inches, plus a stick of notes, at the turn of the century.

Then came the gradual reality that the promise of inexhaustible online  “space” was a chimera. Writers might be able to keep going, with their online versions of events, but that didn’t mean the online team was going to stick around to post that longer story.

In theory, write forever! In practice, most writers needed someone to post the bigger and better story on the website — and those colleagues often were no longer in the office.

(I am reminded of a complaint from earlier in the computer era. A veteran sports fan said he would give up reading the newspaper only when he could take a computer with him to the toilet. This was when the average middle-class family had one cumbersome desk top computer, like an iMac, which was not exactly portable and also featured a dial-up connection that tethered the user to a phone jack.)

The idea of a laptop with a wifi connection seemed forever away. In fact, it was a matter of a few years, and bathroom readers were able to leave the print product outside, and a lot sooner than they ever expected.

And then smart phones fairly quickly became the preferred mode of getting news updates, and the idea of “writing as much as you want” became irrelevant, because there was no forum for it — no one could read the “more” because it would never be posted.

Many/most news sites now post stories as they become available, and they don’t wait for the in-depth version. “Send 200 words and we will get it up fast.” To be consumed on phones by customers OK with the concept of reading, essentially, headlines.

“Old-fashioned” news sites, with meaningful home pages, will still come back with the more complete version of breaking news, but tech people will quote statistics showing smart phones have swamped laptops as the device of choice, and we have to wonder how long the more coherent website homepage will exist.

This is not good.

Sites like run just one long news feed, pretty much done in chronological order, which is rarely the best way to exhibit significant stories. Leaving readers who want more to set off on Google searches looking for a posting that gives us not just extra information, but basic information.

We are flooded by information, in 2018, but most of it is facile, much of it is misleading and nearly all of it is filled with holes. Thus, we have to work twice as hard, surfing the web for additional sources, to get a clear picture of what is happening around the planet. Or even a clear picture on the extent of an athlete’s injury.

In a perfect world, reporters could, in fact, write long … forever.

But journalistic utopia did not arrive with the internet, no matter how the issue was couched, and the terms “journalism” and “internet” seem mutually exclusive as a description of the modern world.

The one saving grace? Reporters can write as long as they want in one forum.

One of their own creation.









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