editor on the verge

Online musings from the newsroom and beyond . . . by Yoni Greenbaum

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Online story presentation: Give me a break

February 12th, 2008 · 4 Comments

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?

Tags: Audience Development · Best Practices · Industry · Innovation · Online · Reporting · Traffic

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 matt king // Feb 12, 2008 at 5:07 pm

    I’m all for writing longer on the Web, though I agree presentation is an issue. I’m really tiredof writing half-formed stories because the 12 inches I’m allowed just arent enough.

    Many stories can do with less than that but just as many need more, so I say use the Web to post the 20 or 25 inch version that actually encompasses a story’s context, history, nuance and complexity.

    I don’t like having to click on multiple pages to read a long story. I’m a big fan of the page-turning apps that sit on one Web page.

  • 2 JohnofScribbleSheet // Feb 13, 2008 at 7:08 am

    Just to chime in with some experiences from ScribbleSheet. We used to have articles on the site that were 800 words long and people said that was just too much.

    Now most articles are in the 500 word region which appears to be more successful. I think people expect newspaper/magazine articles online to be like blog reading. Its definitely a challenge for the industry.

  • 3 Yoni Greenbaum // Feb 13, 2008 at 7:24 am

    @Matt – Definitely with shrinking newsprint budgets, papers should put “more” online. And if that “more” is longer stories or more sidebars, then I’m all for it.

    @John – I think you touch on a great point, the impact that blogs and having on traditional online media. And, I think it extends beyond length to functionality. I’ve noticed that people really want and expect the same bells and whistles that they get on blogs or on other similar sites.

  • 4 J.C. Hutchins // Feb 13, 2008 at 2:00 pm

    As a reporter-turned-podcaster-and-blogger, I see both sides of this conundrum. A newspaper’s online presence *should* provide most — if not all — of an edition’s content (especially those “crown jewel” longer pieces), but what’s the point if they’re presented in a way no one will read them?

    As you mention in your post, deft webpage design or breaking the content into separate pages may be the answer. I’m a fan of the former, and hate the latter. (Clicking is more inconvenient than scrolling.) The former also requires more front-end consideration for design, which requires time — an scarce asset in the newsroom.

    Perhaps leveraging best practices seen in other sites / distribution methods is the answer. A longer piece can have a 300-word “abstract” overview that hits the high points, complete with a source quote, bullet points and a photo. Users can be encouraged to “click in” to the full story, which they intellectually understand will be longer. This provides options for the more interested user, and less time investment for casual readers.

    Another option could be to roll out longer pieces as RSS/blog exclusives; the only way to enjoy these “crown jewels” is to subscribe to the paper’s free RSS feed, which could be promoted alongside the abstract summary described above.

    Thanks for writing such a provocative post, and please keep up the excellent work!

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