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May 4, 2007

Is writing shorter driving readers away?

John Stoehr

Michael Phillips, the theater critic for the Chicago Tribune, left a lasting impression on me when he noted during the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Los Angeles three months ago that readers will take the time to read long screeds of text on a blog, but if you took the same amount of text, say 75 inches in newspaper-speak, and put it into print, readers would be overwhelmed by the amount of text presented to them.

It was a salient observation because of its context: a discussion of the thumbs-up/thumbs-down approach to criticism. One concern was that writing such reviews would encourage people to read less, to skip the bulk of the review and just scan for the meat of it.

This is, of course, what all newspaper people have been taught to accept at God-given truth for at least two and a half decades (at least since USA Today began publishing): that readers have short attention spans, that to get them to feel that a newspaper is vital to their everyday lives, we need to get them the information as fast as possible.

Of all the nuances of that mind-set, one stands out from the rest: write shorter.

I am actually an advocate of writing shorter. There is value is writing shorter, tighter, with more pop. But I also believe in questioning received truth and one recent study gives me lots of reason for doing so: the Poynter Institute's recent eye-track study.

According to Editor & Publisher, the study, released in March, found that readers tend to read more than three-quarters of a story when its online, as opposed to in print. When I saw this I immediately thought about Michael Phillips' observation: People naturally read differently when the story is online. Moreover, the study found that people don't like to jump pages in print, again underscoring Phillips' assertion.

So what does this say about the industry we're in? Is there a relationship between the rule of thumb dictating that we write short (with less nuance, less context, less attention paid the power of language, less stuff in general) and the fact that newspapers are losing readers?

Moreover, newspapers are getting rid of the very places that you'd expect readers to actually spend time reading. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution just sacked most of its critics, including long-time book review editor Teresa Weaver. The Raleigh News & Observer also axed its book guy, the venerable J. Peder Zane. The San Francisco Chronicle and LA Times shrank their book sections. You can read about some of the changes here in this recent New York Times article.

Michael Connelly, the wonderful mystery writer, wrote in the LA Times that getting rid of book sections (a place where, I might add, the longer writing, say, 800-plus words, has been traditionally tolerated) is a short-term financial solution with long-term detriments: If you get read of reasons for people to spend time reader your product, they will go somewhere else.

"The truth is that the book and newspaper businesses share the same dreadful fear: that people will stop reading. And the fear may be well-founded. Across the country, newspaper circulations are down -- and this is clearly part of the reason for the cuts to book sections. At the same time, the book business increasingly relies on an aging customer base that may not be refueling itself with enough new readers."

Where are they going to go if not to the newspapers? Fake news shows. Yep. As traditional news outlets like newspapers are turning their backs on books, authors are turning to fake news shows to be taken seriously, according to a February Times report by Julie Bosman.

Publishers say that particularly for the last six months, ''The Daily Show'' and its spinoff, ''The Colbert Report,'' which has on similarly wonky authors, like the former White House official David Kuo, have become the most reliable venues for promoting weighty books whose authors would otherwise end up on ''The Early Show'' on CBS looking like they showed up at the wrong party.

Television programs that devote significant attention to serious authors have practically gone the way of the illuminated manuscript, publishers lament. Brian Lamb's long-running ''Booknotes'' program on C-Span was permanently shuttered in 2004. ''The Charlie Rose Show'' doesn't generate as much buzz as it used to or translate into higher sales after an author appearance, some publishers say. And the morning shows seem to prefer a bad Britney to a good book.

So. Is writing shorter driving readers away?

Posted by John Stoehr at May 4, 2007 9:30 AM

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