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What’s Next? Shorter stories and less control.

Sounds bleak. It’s natural to shudder at change, especially when change involves losing control. But the news industry is only evolving to meet the demands of modern society.

In researching the state of news design, I came across a number of different ideas and trends — the growing popularity of data-driven journalism and interactive graphics, or the need to be niche, for example — but one trend I didn’t see coming was the decline of long-form writing in major newspapers. I’m still surprised even after reading the article; if anything, I would have thought long-form writing might be what helps news publications survive because now, short news articles can be found very fast and almost anywhere. Longer stories, I thought, would separate and distinguish the papers that produce them.

Still, Dean Starkman’s research, published in the Columbia Journalism Review, shows that long-form writing is on the decline: http://www.cjr.org/the_audit/major_papers_longform_meltdown.php

Starkman demonstrates through data collection that stories longer than 2,000 words have fallen by 86 percent at The Los Angeles Times and about 50 percent at The Washington Post since 2003. But the decreased word counts don’t mean the quality of the reporting has changed, or that narrative form is lost.

One of the most telling statements in the article, in my opinion, comes from Nancy Sullivan of the LA Times. She consulted the managing editor there, and then responded to Starkman:

“To provide context, fewer stories of 2,000-plus words does not signify a retreat from narrative journalism. Narrative is not a function of length and never has been. It’s a way of telling a story, an approach built on direct observation, carefully rendered scenes and the patient accretion of detail. We are as committed as ever to the form,” Sullivan said.

How does news design come into play? Well, that’s not directly addressed in the article, but if the general trend is shorter articles, I’d guess that will have an affect on many aspects of news design. It could affect print layout — how many articles start on a page, what does or does not need to be done to break up massive blocks of text, and whether or not articles should jump or contain on a page, for example. It could be a call for more infographics if, perhaps, some data points are dropped to cut stories down in length, or maybe more detailed photographs, if physical descriptions are what fall by the wayside. These are just personal thoughts, but regardless, I do think the decline in long-form writing in major newspapers will affect the future of news design in a major way.

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I also came across a report from the Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, titled “Post Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present.” It’s really long, but if you find the time, I highly recommend browsing through some of it — there are many insightful points brought to light about how journalism differs now from the past, and how it will differ in the future, including points about journalists themselves, the institutions, changing technology, and changing demand. The report offers recommendations for journalists and news organizations of all kinds as well.

I latched onto the following insight, from within section 3 of the report:

“What does post-industrial journalism look like? It starts with the assumption, introduced in Section 2, that news organizations are no longer in control of the news, as it has traditionally been understood, and that the heightened degree of public agency by citizens, governments, businesses and even loosely affiliated networks is a permanent change, to which news organizations must adapt.”

Expanding on this point, the present news industry differs from the past in that news organizations are not the only ones in control of what news is anymore, and this trend (and related ones) will become even more apparent in the future. The report talks about a pipeline model; in the past, news organizations used to be on one end of the pipeline disseminating information, and the public on the other end receiving it. Now, that model is outdated. The report uses the ejection of the Occupy Wall Street movement from Zuccotti Park as an example, as that story was broken by occupiers themselves and not traditional media outlets.

News in real time is becoming more and more important, and with social media and other similar tools, anyone can disseminate the news, or offer his or her opinion, and do so whenever he or she wants. But how do we design in real time? We can’t print a paper instantaneously.

We can take photos, we’ve got do-it-yourself photo editing and layout applications, and there are data visualization sites that are free for individuals with no design skills. But my (non-expert) opinion is that innovation will be necessary and will come in visual journalism so that actual news designers can meet real-time demands and still tell stories visually, all while maintaining the highest standards.

There’s a lot here, but I think this is a worthwhile essay: http://towcenter.org/research/post-industrial-journalism/c3-ecosystem/

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Here’s an example of a page I think to be successfully innovative in news design, though I’m not sure it was the best means to tell the story. Josh Crutchmer does a great job of analyzing the pros and cons of this design on SND’s website, mentioning many of the thoughts I had and many that I didn’t when I first saw the page: http://www.snd.org/2013/01/drawing-a-blank-two-sides-of-the-nyt-white-space-coin/

NEW YORK TIMES: This design is innovative because it turns whitespace into the page's content, telling a story related to emptiness. It breaks expectations and certainly grabs a reader's attention. That said, I did not have any idea what the story actually was when I first saw the page, which I think is problematic. I knew it was big, but I had to do some digging to figure out the rationale behind the design, which I think in part defeats the purpose of visual storytelling.

THE NEW YORK TIMES: This design is innovative because it turns whitespace into the page’s content, telling a story related to emptiness. It breaks expectations and certainly grabs a reader’s attention. That said, I did not have any idea what the story actually was when I first saw the page, which I think is problematic. I knew it was big, but I had to do some digging to figure out the rationale behind the design, which I think in part defeats the purpose of visual storytelling.

And here’s a page from London’s The Times:

THE TIMES: This spread grabs a reader's attention immediately because of the contrast between red and blue, the graphic nature of the page as opposed to the standard text-based page, and the image of the flag that it creates. This infographic tells a million stories in one, which is exactly what it was supposed to do — the spread is for a 2012 year in review. This must have taken a lot of work to make all the pieces fit together so well, but the end result is a really effective and captivating. It's also very different from other year-in-review packages that were published around the same time.

THE TIMES: This page grabs a reader’s attention immediately because of the contrast between red and blue, the graphic nature of the page as opposed to the standard text-based page, and the image of the flag that it creates. This infographic tells a million stories in one, which is exactly what it was supposed to do — the page is for a 2012 year in review. This must have required a great deal of work to make all the pieces fit together so well, but the end result is a really effective and captivating page. It’s also very different from other year-in-review packages that were published around the same time.

Cheryl Seligman

Cheryl Seligman

2 Comments

  1. EXCELLENT post, Cheryl. Your examples were unique and interesting, and your critiques right on. You’re setting a high bar.

  2. Maybe it’s the optimist in me, but I’ve always countered cynics’ cries about the death of print by touting the ability of journalism to keep society honest. I’ve held steadfast to the idea that, above all, a strong readership would exist if newspapers stuck to their guns and remained true to the shoe-leather reporting that made journalism what it is today. Believing that, I felt quality long-form journalism and in-depth reporting would naturally follow and be the savior of print. I understand how naive-sounding that is in a technology-driven world, but, on a fundamental level, I thought journalism would, in a sense, save journalism.

    While the article concedes that quality isn’t always correlated with length, I can’t get past the idea that writers can generally say more with more words and more space. It is upsetting to read that some believe in the decline of long-form writing, and I’m concerned about what that means to the quality of writing and the ability to convey as much information as necessary in order to deliver a story.

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