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Oct. 21, 2009, noon

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.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email (joshua_benton@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Oct. 21, 2009, noon
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