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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

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Glick makes the pretty standard evaluation that the traditional news article is an outdated medium for conveying information.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.

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  • sweasel

    Yes, I’d buy that. I’ve recently gotten back into long form journalism (as a consumer) after I got a Kindle (print to .pdf and away). I’d forgotten how much I enjoy it.

    But for news? I series of factual bullet points would do me fine.

  • Nicola Perry

    I believe some news should be given away for free and others should get paid. Also, I certainly agree that consumers have different appetites on news and that’s the missing link on Glick’s proposed business representation.

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  • Jonathan Glick

    Sorry for the delayed response, Lois. And thanks again for thinking about these ideas with me.

    Your two main points were that:
    a) People can become interested in breaking news *as a result of* long-form (or in-depth or whatever Jeff Jarvis wants to call it) writing, rather than the other way around.
    b) A writer can use a stream of short-form nuggets to offer up a new kind of storytelling, which are/is *neither breaking news nor long-form writing.*

    I agree that both will exist and in fact already do exist. I don’t see how either undermines my argument that short-form reading and sharing will create the distribution and loyalty to offer long-form work. I think the main trend driving this is the global shift to news consumption on mobile devices.

    Can people become interested in breaking news due to in-depth writing? Certainly! When is this most likely to occur? When the in-depth writing does that most unusual thing and actually becomes news in itself. 

    My mind goes back to Michael Hasting’s wonderful piece on Gen. Stanley McChrystal. For many readers, I’m sure it caused them to reconsider the war in Afghanistan, and for some, follow it more closely, perhaps be more attentive thereafter to breaking news on the conflict.

    I think these kind of stories are rare. Critically important, but rare. And I suspect that many of the people who were affected by the piece didn’t even read it, but rather absorbed it via the coverage around the story, the general’s subsequent resignation, and other fallout. This doesn’t make your point less true, of course.

    I particularly like your second point on writers who create story-streams that let the reader follow their thoughts and adventures over time. Mostly this is being done now on Twitter, and in short bursts on website liveblogs. I personally find this riveting, especially during televised events, crises and disasters. 

    But here again, I think this writing is most successful (for the writer) when some (or even one) of the nuggets in the series is particularly newsy and viral, and gets spread beyond the writer’s loyalists to the wider audience beyond. Those new readers see the nugget, clickthrough to check out the flow, elect to bookmark or follow or friend or whatever the metaphor, and become regulars. This is in fact an essential part of the process I think will become core to the future of news-writing.

    One last point on charging for content: I don’t want to belabor the point about the convenience of social and mobile payment systems upgrading the practicality of this business model, because the content still needs to be entertaining and/or useful (and in a unique way) for someone to pay anything. I do want to point out that we’re not only (or mostly) talking about deep-dive investigative pieces on political corruption or environmental calamity. We are talking about specialized travel guides, parenting helpers, recipe books, fantasy sports draft advisories, video game cheat sheets, and on and on. 

    Of course, there are plenty of reasons why a writer may choose not to charge for his work. I didn’t, wouldn’t and couldn’t. But that doesn’t mean it is impossible to do so.

  • Jonathan Glick

    Yes, I agree. I should have been clearer that only some of the long-form stuff can or will be sold. Thanks for the amendment.