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July 9, 2009, 11:25 a.m.

Why The Boston Globe missed the nanostory with Mitt Romney’s dog

I’m reliably informed that the current issue of Vanity Fair contains a lengthy, engaging, and revealing profile of Sarah Palin, full of unflattering details like an email she wrote to friends and family in the voice of God, signed, “Your Heavenly Father.” But I must confess: I haven’t read the piece. I’ve read about it.

So it goes with lengthy magazine articles and the scarcity of time these days. I read what I can but, like most consumers of digital media, rely on blogs to brief me on the rest. For the Palin profile, I quickly digested a post by New York’s Daily Intel, which “pulled out the ten most unflattering ways that Palin was depicted in the article for your convenient perusal,” and scanned The Daily Beast‘s “top 10 quotations from the nearly 10,000-word article.” (If there were 11 items of interest, well, I guess I’d have to read the piece.)

This new reality must drive the creators and publishers of long-form content nuts. Their nuanced reporting is reduced to atomized bits and peddled by rivals. But the key word is “reality,” as in unavoidable, and I wonder why publications like Vanity Fair don’t do more to serve casual readers. There’s no reason, except pride, that the magazine couldn’t have offered a precis or top-10 list to accompany the Palin piece.

In the video above, I talk to Bill Wasik about a similar situation that’s documented in his new book on viral culture, And Then There’s This. During the 2008 presidential campaign, The Boston Globe ran a 10-part profile of its hometown candidate, Mitt Romney, but the only piece of that reporting to catch much attention was the colorful tale of poor Seamus, the Romney family dog who was tied to the roof of a station wagon and made to suffer other indignities during a vacation in 1983.

Wasik coins the term “nanostory” to describe how blogs seized on the Seamus anecdote and turned it into the hottest story of the campaign for two weeks in the summer of 2007. (See Ian’s review of the book for more on this.) In the process, the Globe undoubtedly lost traffic to political blogs, including many by other mainstream news organizations, that chose to focus on the nanostory. The original Globe story doesn’t even appear in the first 10 pages of results on a Google search for “mitt romney dog.”

Wasik thinks this is awful and decries the state of American political discourse, but I prefer to think about how news organizations could best operate in this inevitable online landscape, awful or not. My proposal: that the Globe should have atomized the content itself, running the 4,500-word article and a separate blog post with only the nanostory of Seamus and his cruel treatment at the hands of the Romneys. Something to link to. (Something like this Globe blog post, “Introducing Seamus Romney, ‘Mr. Personality’,” which the paper ran after the nanostory caught fire, when it was too late.) For Wasik’s critical take on my proposal, check out the video, a transcript of which is below.

But before you do, it’s worth noting that not all nuance is lost in the era of the nanostory: Even without my help, Vanity Fair’s profile of Palin generated nearly 2 million page views in its first six days online — not quite the traffic enjoyed by the magazine’s photo essays of Jessica Simpson or Miley Cyrus, but excellent for a 10,000-word political piece.

Zach Seward: One example from the book that seemed worth looking a little closer at was Mitt Romney’s dog. That began in, I think it was, a 4,500-word profile. It was part of a ten-part series

Bill Wasik: That’s right.

Seward: — in The Boston Globe. And they, they knew they had something because they put it into the lead, but I think it didn’t — you know, it didn’t really get to the, like, you know, the dog, you know, the scatological parts of the story until, like, the fifth or sixth graf. And it was presented the way a newspaper would present a story, which was as an anecdote that speaks to a broader profile of Romney as a man and so on. But as soon as they put it out there, the Globe kind of lost control of the story. I mean, I think they probably didn’t get very much — I mean, they probably got a ton of traffic at first, but it was lost to blogs that essentially, that picked up on that one particular anecdote.

Wasik: Right, exactly. They seized on this one tiny, little corner of, as you say, it was a ten-part series — and, you know, full of all these complications and all this nuance, and the idea was, here, you’re going to get from the hometown paper of, you know, this leading candidate, this very sophisticated idea of who he is. And, literally, the thing that everybody seized on was this one tiny, little funny detail. And, of course, it involved the dog. So, back to the cute animals.  

But, and that, yeah, essentially is the process that I write about in the book. I sort of coin this term “nanostory” to talk about what I see is like the basic unit of cultural transmission in this, like, very, very intense, like, like, information-saturated conversation, which is everything gets boiled down to these tiny, little stories that then become, you know, passed around and satirized, and twists and turns are made on them. It’s the football that gets kicked around, you know, over the course of a week or less. […]

Seward: I wonder if the Globe, if there’s even room to criticize the Globe, too — that they had something that they lost. Because they present a ten-part series, and that’s great, and I’m sure that got, you know, a significant readership. Bu that maybe there was a way to package the dog story — because it was pretty obvious this was going to be something of interest that might be viral — and, package it in a way that would have, that would, for instance, mean that, that that would still be on the first page of Google results for, for that query.

Wasik: Yeah, well, I mean, no, I’m sure there would be. It’s, you know. But gosh, I mean, well this is back to the earlier point, like, do I want to live in a world where, I mean, would I rather lose The Boston Globe than have them make that decision? Like, I might rather lose the Globe. Like, I might rather lose — you know, because when the authoritative institutions go that way, it’s almost worse than when they fail to go that way and somebody else eats their lunch instead. ‘Cause I can’t imagine a packaging of that anecdote in The Boston Globe that would have seemed anything more than embarrassing for the Globe. Like, the idea that they would take — ’cause it happened so many years ago, and it happened as part of their reporting, the really big-picture reporting on it. It would have been probably very weird vis-à-vis the source and the sources. Like, you know, the idea that they would take something so petty out of the story and put a box around it or put a thing about it online, like, it would have seemed, it would have seemed a little weird.

And, of course, this conversation speaks to the heart of the dilemma of papers like The Boston Globe, which is that it’s like your lunch gets eaten, and you can’t even do anything about it because you are constitutionally structured as an organization that’s not supposed to eat that lunch.  […]

You know, one of the things — and this is obviously something you guys must think a lot about here at the Nieman Lab — is, everybody’s talking in these very kind of, you know, flippant terms about how the Internet is eating newspapers’ lunch. But, meanwhile, there are no business models yet for any of these places to make money. I mean the Politico is, is subsidized by Allbritton Communications, which owns TV stations. I would be shocked — maybe, through their content. I mean, do you guys know anything about the finances of the Politico?

Seward: They make money some months and not others. They probably will achieve profitablity, but I think that’s a fair point.

Wasik: Yeah, and because they’re a lean organization. They’re doing, I imagine they’re making money from their content-sharing stuff where they’re, people are paying for it.

Seward: And advertising.

Wasik:  Yeah, but the point being that the Internet advertising market has been suffering to the same extent or maybe even worse than the print advertising market. And so, you know, I do think that it’s weird that old media organizations are being asked to leap into this pool that we don’t really even know if it’s full of water or not.  Like, that, that there is — and a lot of the organizations that we think of as successes in the online space are being borne aloft by, you know, VC money or by inflated stock prices and that kind of thing. So I’m not sure if the time is even right for those kinds of decisions to be made.

Photo of Seamus by Mitt Romney’s sister, Jane, via The Boston Globe.

POSTED     July 9, 2009, 11:25 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Lab Book Club: Viral culture
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