Question of the Week, March 4

This week’s question: is the Internet killing long form journalism? Max Lakin, Vincent Valk, and Adam Chadwick have at it, with some disagreement. If you’d like to join the conversation, leave a comment, or email Vincent Valk: vjvalk at gmail dot com.

The question really is, “Is the Internet killing our attention spans?” and of course it isn’t.

It’s eviscerating them, and using the ash as snuff.

New media is what everyone swears is the game now, and unless you can encode and program and traffic in Flash, and slap together other neon mosquito lamps, you might as well take your buyout gracefully. But in terms of the way we currently digest content, all the ‘new’ part seems to be is an abbreviated iteration of the old, maybe with some embedded video if we’re lucky. A lot of the time, it’s just the print content pasted onto a publication’s tethered website, for free.

Web-dedicated writing is at its best concise, deft, and unmoored from the cramped and stodgy confines of paper. Some web content, like Slate, chooses to remain stodgy. That’s fine, they wear those pants well. But that kind of writing is a small part of what’s out there, the majority being agonistic, unedited spirals of consciousness that exists for the sake of existing. I’m talking about the self-indulgent lifestreams and myopic brand-beating that we as writers have gotten into our heads that that’s the only way to be heard.

Obviously, the Internet does not lend itself to the long-form. Journalism is already an ephemeral, throw-away product when it’s committed to ink, and that throw-away quality swells when that next link is grinning at you with its kinetic Tweet potential. This is poised to change with new and better tablet readers, but it probably won’t mean the rebirth of the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer — though it can be argued that today’s aspiring journalists are less aspiring to a Pulitzer than a strong blog readership.

So maybe the question isn’t only about whether readers will posses the attention to get through something heavier than 400 words, but if they’ll even be interested to.

– Max Lakin

I will leave that answer up to the consensus of the reporters out there. However, a vital bit in our recent interview with NYT reporter David Barstow lead me to believe this is true. His main concern is that many news readers on the web scroll down the first page of the article on the website and see that there are 4 more pages to get through. Many readers simply click away when they see certain stories are longer than a page or two. Our attention spans continue to grow shorter and shorter. We will pay the price for this in the future.

– Adam Chadwick

Whenever I hear someone decrying our loss of attention span due to the internet (or TV, or cell phones, or radio – pick your poison, really) I can’t help but ask one question: How do we know?

That is, how do we know that we are no longer able to sit patiently and digest a long, deep, thought-provoking piece of journalism? Perhaps more importantly, how do we know that there was ever a time when large numbers of people were sitting down to read long profiles of economists in the New Yorker, or meandering tales of homegrown Islamic extremists in the New York Times Magazine? David Barstow wonders if web readers scroll down to see how long articles are. And maybe they do. But it’s not as though it was impossible to discern the length of an article during the halcyon days of print.

Now, with all the byte-sized information coming at us from all directions at all times, it would seem to logically follow that we’re losing our ability to pay attention and digest it. Indeed, there is some evidence that today’s teens, net-savvy as they are, may lack the patience to read so much as a blog post. So, when they grow up, they won’t be too interested in this month’s Atlantic cover story, no?

Well, most of them probably won’t. Fact is, though, most people never were. What I want to know is this: with all the talk about those darn ‘kids today’ (even twentysomethings such as myself), don’t care about hard news, and how we’re all, all of us, slowly marching towards Idiocracy via Twitter, how come nobody ever references a point from which that decline started? We hear that people are consuming information in smaller and smaller bites and assume we are losing our attention spans, but where are the studies showing how much of a newspaper article the average person, let alone the average teenager, read in 1972? If we’re going to say our attention spans are declining, shouldn’t we have some idea of what they once were?

I don’t know that we do. But I do know about the inverted pyramid. If you’re a journalist, surely you’ve heard of it – you want to pack the most important information at or near the top of a story. There’s a number of reasons why this developed, but it occurs to me that one might be the assumption that readers will not get to the bottom. Maybe that’s because they’re busy – and maybe it’s because they don’t have the attention span (though the two are not mutually exclusive).

Of course, long-form journalism operates somewhat differently and tends towards a more narrative structure. Still, that the age-old basic structure of a newspaper story carries the implicit assumption that the reader will not finish it is instructive. Long form journalism was, and remains, something of a niche product. Much as we journalists may want to lament a bygone era when readers settled into their easy chairs to digest long, meaningful stories in the day’s paper, perhaps we ought to entertain the notion that such an era always existed primarily in our imaginations.

– Vincent Valk


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