Sustaining Democracy in a Digital Age

A Blog from New America's Media Policy Initiative

Long-form Journalism for the Short Attention Span

Published:  July 20, 2010
Publication Image

Online journalism can't satisfy all our information needs, but finding new ways of packaging all the necessary details plays to the Web's advantage. (Photo credit: Dean Shareski/shareski)

It’s no secret that we live in a time when the news most likely to be consumed is that which is served bite-sized to readers, ideally in 140 characters or, if necessary, 140 words. Even when readers have the inclination and attention span to read long-form journalism, they might not want to curl up with their screen of choice and delve into an unending single-page view. Nicholas Carr’s recently published book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, has only increased the buzz around the argument that the Internet is hurting human intelligence. So when big stories come out--investigative reports with both reportorial heft and wide-ranging policy implications--it helps to know that people will read them and give them the attention they merit.

With this in mind, the form and delivery of this week’s Washington Post investigation, “Top Secret America,” has piqued my interest even more than the content of the story itself (although perhaps my colleagues at New America’s Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative will feel differently). That the Post had the financial resources to support a two-year-long investigative project is reassuring for the state of journalism, but not shocking; after all, it’s still one of the country’s top newspapers. As others have begun to note, the Post’s editors broke with convention by publishing the series on Monday, instead of in the Sunday paper, to reach a broader national audience who read The Post online. Even more, it’s the form of Dana Priest and William M. Arkin’s Post investigation that shows the potential for something new: It takes years of research and turns it into digestible pieces for the click-happy dilettante readers of the Internet. This is in no way to suggest that the form is dumbing down the meat of the argument; rather, it gives readers the news they need in the medium they want. The data visualizations make it interactive and condense vast amounts of information, and the slideshow presentation of the text in a single horizontal frame breaks down the story into short, unintimidating screens.

The emphasis on online consumption of the story was evident even in the first piece that ran in print yesterday. Below the fold on on the front page of yesterday’s paper were a screenshot of the map online, a link to the unique URL created for the story, and captions directing readers to the suite of multimedia accompanying the story and a live chat with the reporters scheduled for this afternoon. While the screenshot was jarring at first, it also drove home the point that this is a project meant for the Web. The series continued with two full-page spreads spanning A6 to A9 and chock full of infographics and photos, with more screenshots of interactive online tools that visualize the data, locations, and agency roles discussed in the text. Even before publication, the investigation was conducted with an online medium in mind: The Editors’ Note explained that Web content was run by government agencies to address potential security risks and The Post ultimately “limited the degree to which readers can use the zoom function on maps to pinpoint those or other locations”

People have proposed various methods for coping with what the New York Observer called “Reader Despair Syndrome.” Over at Longform.org, for example, you can bookmark Priest and Arkin’s series to read later -- presumably when the work day’s screen fatigue has worn off (if such a time exists). But I like The Post’s approach better. Long-form journalism is as crucial as ever to informing the public, holding government accountable, and encouraging creativity and even artistry among news producers. Finding effective ways of packaging and sharing these stories is just the next opportunity for innovation.

Are there other success stories for making long-form journalism on the Web more palatable? Should we be at all concerned to find all our media consumption converging online? Let us know in the comments.

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