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June 3, 2011, noon

The news/analysis divorce: Who gets custody of the cash?

Editor’s Note: Lab contributor Lois Beckett is a freelance journalist who focuses on meta-media reporting and the future of long-form journalism. Here, in a response to a much-discussed article predicting a “divorce” between news and analysis, she considers the economic aspects of longform. 

One of the must-read articles of the week is “The News Article is Breaking Up,” by Sulia CEO Jonathan Glick.

Glick makes the pretty standard evaluation that the traditional news article is an outdated medium for conveying information. Consumers, he argues, want either a quick, tweet-sized update — something that they can take in as part of the stream, particularly on increasingly ubiquitous smartphone platforms — or an immersive longform experience that puts those bits of information into context.

Unlike Jeff Jarvis, who argues that “the most precious resource in news is reporting,” Glick argues that “the news” should be given away for free, as a loss leader for analysis. “Long-form writing will survive and will do so by abandoning news nuggets,” he writes. Furthermore: “The good news for writers is that this dovetails with their financial and intellectual interests.”

Via a variety of social-mobile platforms, they will pass along facts and pictures as soon as they obtain them — or verify them, depending on the writer’s journalistic standards. Writers who are especially good at doing this real-time reporting will develop audiences who are attentive to their mobile alerts. News nuggets are highly viral, so successful reporters will very quickly be introduced to huge numbers of readers.

Through this loss-leading channel, writers will then be able to notify their readers about longer-form articles they have created…. These pieces will written to be saved to read later — for that time when the reader takes a moment to relax, learn, and enjoy resting by the side of the stream. Social and mobile platforms make payment much easier, so it will be practical to charge a small fee. Fifty cents for thoughtful analysis is inexpensive, and yet it is the cost of an entire newspaper today.

Let’s put aside the question of whether charging “fifty cents for thoughtful analysis” is a realistic price point. The problem with Glick’s proposed business model is that it misrepresents the relationship between explanation and appetite.

Consumers have an appetite for updates about stories they’re already following (industry news, celebrity relationships) or for big events whose importance is easy to grasp (tornadoes, sex scandals, revolutions). But for many issues, consumers develop an interest in “news nuggets” about a topic only after reading a long-form story about it. This can be true of investigative journalism, and of almost every long-form story that isn’t about a celebrity or a piece of major breaking news. Explanatory journalism creates the appetite for news updates on many subjects, not the other way around.

For that kind of longform, Glick’s business model is nonsensical. The pieces of many stories — the chronologically gathered details — have little value, economically or otherwise, without relevant context. As a reporter, how can I tweet observations about a source my readers don’t know about, or new wrinkles in an investigation that is still a mass of contradictory evidence?

Glick also creates a dichotomy between Twitter’s raw “nuggets” of news and highly crafted long-form stories. But Twitter, as a reportorial form, is actually much richer and more flexible than that either/or framing would suggest.

Take Mother Jones human rights reporter Mac McClelland, who gained a larger audience through her vividly tweeted coverage of the BP oil spill. Her tweets aren’t exactly “highly viral news nuggets.” Some of them have a breaking-news quality, but the central appeal of her Twitter feed is cumulative. It’s a crafted narrative, with McClelland as the questing, sometimes outraged, protagonist. Her feed is a long-form story that lives inside the news stream. To break it down to atomic elements seems, somehow, to miss the point.

That’s not to say that Glick’s notion of reporters propelling themselves to long-form stardom might not work for certain types of reporting — about big political campaigns, or revolutions, or natural disasters. These are situations in which readers have enough of a grasp of what’s going on to want real-time “news nuggets,” and enough questions to be willing (maybe) to pay for a well-crafted explainer that puts the updates together. In these cases, the loss-leaders might be tweets, or they might be the long-form stories themselves, which, in turn, might attract readers to pay for access to journalists’ live updates. Or, as Gerry Marzorati suggested earlier this year, nonfiction writing itself might become a loss-leader for another form of economic sustainment: book tours, events, and other direct encounters with the public.

Glick may not arrive at the right answer, but he is asking the right question: If short articles, once the journalist’s daily bread, can indeed be replaced in part by snappier, tweeted updates, how will reporters make money?

Image by Jez used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 3, 2011, noon
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