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Dec. 15, 2011, 10 a.m.

From Nieman Reports: Politico’s experiments with quick-turn ebooks

“The digital book project is a way of ensuring that these tips and anecdotes and character insights don’t get pushed aside, and instead are developed and given to readers in a format that puts them in the best light.”

Editor’s Note: Our sister publication Nieman Reports is out with their Winter 2011 issue,”Writing the Book,” which focuses on the new relationships between journalism and the evolving book publishing industry. Over the next few days, we’ll highlight a few stories from the issue — but go read the whole thing. In this piece, Politico’ editor-in-chief John Harris writes about his news organization’s experiments with political ebooks.

As a once and I hope future author, I’ll confess that in certain moods a bleak scenario can cross my mind. Just my luck, and that of other journalists of my generation, that a good nearly six-century run in the publishing business might be about to perish — the victim of changes in technology and audience tastes — at the very moment we are ready to write.

These fears — like many anxieties that people comfortable with familiar paths hold about disruptive technologies — may prove overwrought. With luck, one hopes, in retrospect they will even come to seem ridiculous.

And yet there is no denying that the digital era has not on balance been a friend to long-form narrative. The historic shift has weakened daily newspapers, imperiled some fine magazines, and seems likely to be in the early stages of launching a similar upheaval in the book publishing industry. It is not just business models that are changing. The proliferation of information — abetted by the omnipresence of devices to carry that information to us at all times and in all settings — at times seems to be affecting the very nature of the human mind and its capacity for the sustained concentration that lengthy articles and books demand. One friend adapts with a self-imposed rule about paragraphs in the modern age: Never longer than can appear in a single BlackBerry screen. Months of enterprise reporting may never find an audience unless it can be cleverly reduced to 140 characters on Twitter in the hope of going viral.

Now I am starting to sound like something I and my colleagues at Politico have vowed not to be — pessimists. As journalists, the group of us who joined five years ago to start a publication devoted to national politics and the workings of Washington made a very purposeful decision that we would not live our journalism careers in a defensive crouch, besieged by unwanted change, longing nostalgically for some rapidly receding golden age. To the contrary, Politico has found editorial and business success by embracing technological change and trying vigorously to dominate a niche: content aimed at people who share our intense, even obsessive, interest in politics. Optimism is partly a matter of willpower, but it is partly a rational response to a media marketplace that by our estimate has opened plentiful new opportunities even as it has narrowed others.

Keep reading at Nieman Reports »

POSTED     Dec. 15, 2011, 10 a.m.
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