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Tuesday 22 July 2014

Why newspapers are dying and magazines aren’t: hint: it has nothing to do with glossy pages.

Why newspapers are dying and magazines aren’t: hint: it has nothing to do with glossy pages.

The old misconception between print and online: portrays it as a choice between yesterday’s news today, which you have to pay for, or today’s news as it happens. If that were why newspaper circulation has been dropping substantially: it would have happened with the introduction of 24-hour news television and radio. In fact, it would have happened with the introduction of the nightly news. The fact of the matter is that what people most like online is substantially different from the short articles which newspapers generally publish.

I sometimes like to comment on other people’s articles. What amazes me is that the most popular comments are generally not short or sweet comments. The popular type of comments: are those which we at SACNS call concise comments. If you have ever read an Oxford dictionary: you will notice that the concise Oxford dictionary is massive. Concise relates to fully encompassing a matter in as efficient a manner as possible. While newspapers have been dying out, their friend the magazine has been flourishing. I’m not talking about lads magazines, or the mass produced picture books that some think are entertaining. These are dying out. What I am talking about is the long form magazine. What I am talking about is concise reporting, the type of reporting you might read in the National Geographic magazine.

A look at which Internet blogs are the most popular will once again draw up a surprise. It is generally long form blogs and concise blogs which get the most viewership. These are services which make articles of at least 1000 words if not tens or hundreds of thousands of words their mainstay.

If I look at which of my articles are the most popular, factoring out the celebrity influence and niche markets: it is generally the long form or longer form article.

It might seem counterintuitive at first: that the most popular comments on any article tend to be long comments, and to take a while to read. The most popular online articles also tend to take a good amount of time to read.

The same strange trend goes for emails also. Emails which are short and sweet and use very simple language: are the least likely to be opened. Emails which are lengthy and utilise proper and good English: are surprisingly more likely to be opened. To a degree it does make sense. I am far more likely to share an article online that uses an advanced and interesting word that even I have to look up, than one which uses one step up on SMS language.

Which news websites, and news articles are the most popular? Surely websites such as Wired with their very long articles. Surely articles such as those that can be found in: the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, the British Guardian. The articles these services produce are lengthy, detailed and often require scrolling down through long reams of text. Newsletters have also once again become popular. The type of newsletter which is popular is not short and sweet. It is the type of newsletter that is worth the effort and the nuisance of having another email in your inbox each day. The newsletters I subscribe to tend to be long form newsletters. They tend to require scrolling and much reading. The type of newsletter I have unsubscribed from and banished from my inbox: is the type which is short and sweet and uses simple language. I take no interest in that sort of email. It is not worth my efforts in opening it.

Imagine if newspapers instead of having a headline and five pages on that headline, did what many newspapers are attempting to do with online: had five small headlines on the front page, each with an article of only 100 words. Imagine if that newspaper only had one headline, with a big image: and only 100 words on the headline topic. Would you still buy the newspaper for the headline? After all old wisdom says that newspaper headlines sell the newspaper. I certainly would not buy a newspaper for the headline if the newspaper only had 100 words on the headline topic. 100 words are not enough to be worth the price of 5 Rand or 10 Rand to me. Certainly, there are newspapers such as the Johannesburg Star: which while each article is quite short, have such a broad basis: that in a sense the entire newspaper is one article, possibly worth reading cover to cover.

The question arises as to why people still listen to news radio when news television has come out. Why for instance might I listen to a podcast of 60 minutes of radio news out of America, where I can watch television news for 60 minutes instead? News radio flourishes for the same reason that long form articles have continue to exist despite a decline in news media. If I listen to news radio, for instance RFI, I gain a lot more detail and perspective on an issue. For the same reason that someone might read an entire book on an important event, and pay 100 Rand for it, or even 1000 or more Rand for it: people like to listen to radio specifically because it gives you more detail than other mediums.

If Twitter were killing newspapers: then the advertisements newspapers put on the streets, with headlines even shorter than twitter tweets: would have killed newspapers long ago. Open your average newspaper, there might be 50 stories in it. Open your average newspaper, there is a wide variety of news. Open your average magazine, are there perhaps 20 articles folded between the covers?

Why is it that short form film: that music video television channels are dying out or changing to other formats? Is it because the same music videos can be found on YouTube? Why then do television channels which show series and movies not also die out as quickly? Is it not perhaps because music videos are short and sweet? You might not go to most movies, at the cinema, but you probably watched long movies such as Star Wars, the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and so forth. The short and sweet movies could not hold your interest enough to keep you there.

People often speak about the meat and bones of something. Information-wise it consists of a thorough telling of what in fact has occurred. Many newspapers have become lazy over the years. Their articles are short and sweet. They have ceased to point out spelling mistakes. They pay their journalists next to nothing and think that an uneducated, illiterate journalist is the equivalent of a master of the English language. They have based their news on a foolish and idiotic audience, aiming at the lowest common denominator rather than taking a stand and in fact investigating what has actually occurred in the world.

Some say that news media has taken a different role in the world of blogs and citizen journalism: that of verifying fact and disputing fiction. However, many blogs and citizen journalists have that very integrity that media often lacks. I’m not speaking of the social media idiots many people have come to know. I am speaking instead of human beings with integrity, the same integrity that many successful news organisations used to hold to.

Even though I mostly disagree with their viewpoint: I love to read the British Guardian online. They are more likely to tell me the sort of details that really matter.

As many newspapers are introducing pay walls, many are doing so to their own destruction. If all I am getting is a summary, I might as well find a summary for free. If all I am paying for is someone who will give me the exact same view as I hold: I am unlikely to pay for that. Certainly, these type of articles might get a lot of shares. They get these shares to prove a point, but if they add nothing new to my worldview than I might as well not pay for them. In the world of Twitter I can gain the view of a celebrity or world government that interests me simply by subscribing to them on social media. If media is to play any role at what our future is to be: it can no longer simply be repeating the words of others. Partisan media and media which is merely a mouthpiece for another, might as well cease to exist, as the source can easily be accessed independently. If I am to buy a newspaper or buy access to an article, it needs to have meat and bones. It needs to provide me with a sustaining meal that I cannot find elsewhere. This is why magazines continue to flourish. This is why short form newspapers continue to die.

There used to be a mantra that if a site took more than eight seconds to load it would be seen as unworthy of reading. It was a mantra that people have a short attention span. Unfortunately, the same people who are easily distracted by butterflies and bees, are only distracted for a moment or so, and can easily find distraction elsewhere. They are unlikely to even remember a small distraction, and go on with their lives having forgot that they even clicked on a link or loaded the website in question that took less than eight seconds to load and remained in their memory for even less time. The problem with things that only temporarily take up but a moment of a person’s time, is that often there is no sustenance in these. I will probably not go to a restaurant and sit down only to eat a very small, unappetising meal all alone. If you want your website to get a lot of viewers in the short term, or your newspaper likewise: go ahead, be sensationalist, and take up people’s time for just a moment. They will forget you existed tomorrow, and will not thank you for it! If however you are a media organisation that desires to respect your readers and to give them the full picture that they desire, consider instead gaining a long-term audience by writing longer and more concise articles. This article has already hit almost 2000 words, if you did not stop reading it upon discovering that then you’re not the sort of person who only reads short works. You’re the sort of person who probably still buys magazines every now and again. You are the audience who will still pay to read news, but not simply news summaries. If newspapers want to survive the next hundred years, whether behind pay walls or physically: they need to relearn the art of the concise article and of providing meat and bones to the audience. They also need to relearn the importance of being not a mouthpiece, or a mere bulletin board for the important. People will not pay to simply read one view on a matter when they can gain the full perspective from several sources for free. If newspapers want to survive they need to start adhering again to audi alteram partem: they need to give the full picture in a concise and effective manner, which informs and entertains their readers in a respectful exercise of telling of the truth and of informed and intelligent opinion. This is far more the sort of work which an individual is likely to pay to consume. Think of the most famous books and plays in history. Think of War and Peace. Think of the Lord of the Rings. Think of the Odyssey and Iliad. Think of just how difficult it is to read Shakespeare or Pride and Prejudice!

When you’re done thinking of these things, realise that the long form is here to stay. Concise news is a return to history, a history where news was worth paying for! A history, that can sustain newspapers which are dying not because of the Internet but because they are not worth paying for anymore or any longer. Unless their articles once again were to become longer, of course.

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