Update: A defense for long-form, pt. 2

Words, once they are printed, have a life of their own. – Carol Burnett

And my rant goes on.

I want to write about this before I forget about it: my friend today made a very interesting point about journalists/journalism students learning multimedia for the “future of journalism.” He made the point to say that, yes, there is a future for multimedia in journalism but the sad thing is that the jobs where these skills may put us a head above others are dwindling at best. Learning multimedia is good for us, but the jobs we’re looking to court with these advanced new skills may not even be there by the time we get to the job pool. That’s a sad thought…but it’s true.

I think the argument that “Journalism is dying” is fatalistic and kind of annoying, but I can’t deny that it’s true. Yes, the newspapers are struggling. And multimedia will help them stay ahead of the curve. But, as my friend said, this new technology doesn’t necessarily mean new jobs. I think that young journalists like myself need to find a way to

Another issue with the future of journalism is the journalism-as-a-business model. Tell any journalist (or budding journalist) that journalism’s a business and expect a gasp in response. Newspapers have been grappling with profit and how to get it and still run good copy really since newspapers started making money. Now it’s become even more of an issue as profit seems to go by the wayside as “citizen journalists,” bloggers and the Huffington Post have dutifully declared themselves as the “future of journalism”, effectively sending harrumphing journalists into despair and good writing into the black hole of  forgotten crafts like quilting.

But I don’t think that this change in perspective about what journalism is in the new age means that all journalism has to change. We don’t have to be little sheep following the SEO and aggregation shepherds of the internet.

But this also doesn’t mean that we should be stubborn about ourselves, either. I think that we can be extreme about our approach to our role as journalists — we either go all out or none. Maintain print or go strictly online. But this approach is very short-sighted. I think that there are ways to not only embrace both the print and the online structures, but also enhance the role of the reader and the opinion of the reader.

Like I said before, I think that readers today are really underestimated. It’s wrong to assume that they prefer a short tidbit of information over an in-depth long-form piece of journalism. It’s also wrong to use readers as pawns in the constant tug-of-war between newspapers and their advertisers. Now, I think short, scanner style stories are really important for helping readers wade through the unimaginable amount of information there is to process every given day.

But as we become bogged down with so much content (and advertisement), I feel as if citizens have become confused about the real meaning of journalism. Is its goal to pump out as much content as it can, with a lack of regard for what’s really important? Is the finish line more important than the actual race?

I think there’s a lot of potential for journalism online that can help us get back on track. Matter is one of the best ideas today. Basically, it’s this project that a great group of journalists have come up with that really is encouraging long-form, well researched, heavily investigated journalism. It’s not about one topic, and will only release one long piece of journalism a week for .99c per article, iTunes-style.

This leads to another issue: finance. We don’t want to have subscription-only sites, yet we don’t want to give out free content. So how about 10 free articles per month? 5? Take away the print edition entirely?

Barraged with ads and clogged with news stories from every section in a labyrinthine setup, news websites are constantly trying to figure out what people want to see online and why people so quick to criticize.

I think there’s a lot more to consider when it comes to finance of journalism, like this Reuters piece describes.

Matter’s Kickstarter video

1. I like the idea of the iTunes-style model. I really do truly believe that people would buy a piece of journalism for $1 (I mean…it is only one dollar). We buy books that are popular, we buy albums, we buy clothes. All online. If this Matter site proves itself as much as it’s saying, there’s no reason why the bandwagon effect wouldn’t translate to long-form journalism.

2. The ambition of one story a week is perfect. It’s not too much content to handle, and it embraces the idea of anticipation. It works. (Or it should…I guess we’ll see.)

3. Embracing the online and the print, focusing on statistics and the readers. What if news organizations DID give free content online, but also kept their print edition for a subscription fee or a per-purchase fee? This print edition could even be made reader-specific by looking at the stats of what people read, what type of people read what, where they’re from, etc. This technology is possible and is used in newsrooms…so why not apply it to the product itself and to the way the news source makes money?

Say your steady readers who keep coming back really like to read about the Arab Spring. So, in your print edition, include stories about these revolutions. You’re catering to your steady devotees, but you’re also gaining profit while maintaining interest. And you also include other things that you think are important. We shouldn’t undermine our own role in the newsmaking process.

4. Paying past the first page. There’s also another way to make money that’s described in the aforementioned article. What if we re-configure how readers read the inverted pyramid style and translate to profit? Most of the information could be on the first page of an article, and subsequent information on further pages could cost 5, 10c at some point.

5. Suggested cost. Or, you could do it Radiohead style and ask readers to donate money for longer-form stories at the last page (or the first, whichever, who knows?). People bought Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” online when the band website let them enter however much they wanted to pay. (I do know people who paid little to nothing…but the important thing to think about is the people who DID pay.)

This is where the rest of journalism can play in — the bulky middle that is between 10 and 20 inches and isn’t quite long-form, isn’t quite scanner-style. It’s as if we feel guilty about making people read our stories. It’s a strange reverse psychology. We lament in how we’re unappreciated, but we can’t stick up for ourselves when the big-bad Internet reprimands us for writing too much.

Simply, we can’t treat our readers like they’re uncompromising royalty exulted by the journalism who can reach them the fastest or keeps them on the page the longest. We also can’t underestimate them and their genuine interest in reading. There’s been a growing gap between journalism and the readers, even though we’ve, at face value, created more connections like guest bloggers and sister citizen-run sites. We should think about what we’re really doing, though.

The internet has shackled journalists and readers up in chains as it dominates how people use it. We’ve become reactive to the internet instead of proactive, and with some re-assessment, I think that role can change. But for now, until we figure out how to maintain journalism’s integrity online and serve our readers to the greatest extent, we’ll join the perpetrators in the active (and often unintentional) crippling of the craft of newsmaking in the new era of journalism

Long-form is a way to connect people. Everyone loves a good story. If only we found a way to bring back that mentality, we’d be able to improve our legitimacy as journalists and the trust and interest of those we write for.

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