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Writing the novel, then the CliffsNotes

On Saturday, Gawker broke a big story: It ran a first-person account by a man named Robert Thomas who said Richard Heene (of balloon-boy fame) had talked about planning a hoax to get media attention and make himself famous. Not long thereafter, the local sheriff said the stunt was, indeed, a hoax.

Gawker got some attention for the fact that it paid Thomas for his story. But setting that aside, I want to applaud a small decision Gawker made in how it told the story.

Thomas’ story is about 2,000 words, and it’s a narrative. It spends a fair amount of time spinning backstory before getting to the juicy stuff. It was compelling reading if you were already fascinated by the balloon-boy tale, but it wasn’t a grabber for someone with a more casual interest.

So at the same moment the big Thomas piece was posted, Gawker also posted a bullet-laden summary of the piece — the CliffsNotes version of their own article.

As I write this, the full story has generated 480,000 pageviews and 189 comments. But the CliffsNotes version has generated another 39,193 pageviews and 83 comments on its own — both well above average for a weekend Gawker post. And I could imagine scenarios where the bullet-point version could do even better the original.

I wrote about this once before, but there’s real value in taking the longer pieces we journalists love to write — and defend — and creating parallel versions that less dedicated readers can more easily take in. We should do it both because it’ll increase our audience and because, if we don’t do it, someone else will. The brilliance of Gawker and its ilk is in creating compact summaries of the longer stories others produce. Here they just turned that power on their own work. I’d love to see the Times or the Post take the same approach to their own big series and long narrative takeouts, where the important news can be buried underneath lots of (lovely) prose.

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  • Kirschty

    Back in my college days, I was fortunate enough to ascend to editor in chief of the newspaper at a large Big Ten university. I took it upon myself to commence a redesign of the paper to commemorate of our 100-year anniversary, and I was all about “modern.” One of the things we tried — aside from centered headlines and multiple typefaces — was a “dashboard” running along the left of the front page. My hope was that this could be a home for quick summaries of the day’s top stories, hyper-distilled. It never really caught on — I think the paper was re-redesigned shortly after I left campus — but it’s gratifying, somehow, to see a similar treatment becoming more prevalent in the media. It’s almost a return to the old-old-old days, when big stories would have multiple informative subheads before the lede.

  • EP

    Thanks for this. It’s a great idea, as long as the stories are still read, and written, and paid for, and not completely substituted by their CliffNotes. Nice to see the longer narrative Gawker piece got more views and more comments. If both were posted at the same time as you say, that might be telling us something important.

  • Foster Kamer

    Both were posted almost simultaneously. I read the story from our side as if it were being run on another website, wrote it up like I would any other post, and then sliced it to the bare bones. This is about as close to the old “cut the fat” editing adage as you can get. Being that it was our own story, there was far more than the usual liberty taken towards being cruel in deciding which details weren’t needed, but also, heavier pressure to get the summary right. As someone who’s chopping up others’ writing during the week and who’s the writer on the weekends, this was a really, really entertaining act of editorial sadomasochism.

  • EP

    Very clever, and hopefully trendsetting. Here’s to more of those!

  • albert

    Definitely smart. I often go to read what looks like an interesting story, see that it runs to seven more pages and then file it away to read later and end up forgetting about it all together because I’ve done that to so many other articles I’ll never catch up. Give me the synopsis and the bullet points and I’ll have a better filter to decide whether or not I want to go in depth.

  • Martha Nichols

    Wonderful idea, and from Gawker yet. This gives hope and a way around how to extend magazine features online. So how long can the original feature run before total screen fatigue? (Or even print fatigue?) Would this work for 5,000 words?

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  • Matt Mireles

    Important point: Gawker did this. Not NYT. Not WaPo. Not anyone from the old school. They get it in a way that the dinosaurs don’t, and probably won’t until it’s too late.

    All that said, you’re spot on with your analysis, Josh. And overall, I like the emphasis you place in this blog on user interface and user experience for the news reader. Hearing/reading you write about it makes it seem obvious, but clearly it’s not so obvious to everyone else. Kudos.

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