Too many newspaper websites are simply online recreations of their printed products. These sites do little to take advantage of the opportunities being online provide. And worse, what bad habits they have in print, they replicate online.
Case in point — long stories.
It is well known that “lack of time” is one of the main, if not the main, reasons why readers cancel their subscriptions. Many newspapers have tried to address this by offering shorter stories or, at the very least, reduce the number of long stories that they publish. In a memo last year to the staff of the Washington Post, Executive Editor Len Downie and Managing Editor Phil Bennett wrote:
“For too long we’ve confused length with importance. Often the result has been stories that readers don’t want to finish and displays in the newspaper that don’t do our journalism justice.”
This is not just a problem at the Washington Post and definitely not just a print issue. Look at this story from one of my local newspapers. Not counting the byline and tagline, this piece comes in at 1,808 words, which loosely translates to 48 inches long. In print, that is a long story. Online it is a really long story. And looking at it online it’s clear that it lost any of the ‘elegant’ design that it might have had in print. Actually online it’s just a pain. But it didn’t have to be.
While I’ve heard the argument that subheads can destroy a writers prose, I believe that you need those visual cues to help the reader, in-print and especially online. I would go so far as to support the idea that a long story without subheads, might just as well appear without paragraph marks. OK, maybe that is going too far, but seriously I think we need to keep the reader in mind, both when we write and when we present.
Some newspapers (New York Times, the Star Ledger, etc.,) will take a long story and break it up on multiple screens. Some sites even have a single page view for those who still relish the long form story. But even the papers that divide their stories between screen use subheads.
Now I’m not saying avoid all long stories. Honestly I think that would be a tragedy, but I think we can do a better job presenting them online.
What about you? How do you handle long stories?