Kill the news article! (Or … How to save news writing)
We need to abolish the news “article.” Maybe all of us in journalism should. But I’m pretty positive we in student media should. Why?
- The biggest writing problem I see in college media, up to and including the elite publications, is that we try to force basic facts into a false “article” narrative. The writer, especially a new writer who of course is assigned a less-than-inspirational set of facts to assemble, battles bravely. He inserts transitions. He throws in quotes because, well, you’ve got to have quotes. It’s too long, and it’s boring. But we told him to write an “article.”
- Our biggest design problem (except at a very few outstanding programs) is that those “articles” are accompanied by photos and graphics dreamed up after the fact — or at least separately from the reporting process — to “illustrate” the boring text. We all want to smartly integrate design elements and text, but how often do we accomplish that goal? Is it acceptable to fail at this?
Update, April 11: Bill Neville at the University of Alabama-Birmingham points out that the Poynter Institute’s “Eyetracking The News” study found that readers remember more information from a collection of facts arranged in “alternative,” more graphically appealing forms rather than in a traditional news story. So it’s not just about enticing them. It’s also about how much we help them. A college media editing staff could decide to train writers (including the newbies every semester) on all the subtle differences between an “article” and a true “story” with touches of character, conflict, etc. But the truth is that very few print publications anywhere do this very well despite decades of talking about narrative storytelling and alternative story forms. My prediction: As long as the article format exists as a fallback for writers, any similar campaign in a college media newsroom will end the same way. A few high-achievers will do better, but editors quickly will be overwhelmed by poor copy and won’t have time to coach all the violators into compliance. “Articles” still will pour into the publication. Maybe we’ll cut our boring article quotient from 60 percent to 50 percent.
Instead, let’s just do away with the format that causes us so much trouble! Kill the tyrant!
Like any zealous revolutionary, I don’t think it’s that complicated. I think it can be done with a pretty simple mechanism. Whenever a story is pitched or assigned (preferably in a centralized database), there could be a mandatory section at the top along these lines:
CAMPUS BUGLE STORY ASSIGNMENT
- There’s room for debate on how long a brief can be. But it ought to be pretty short. A bunch of these should fit in the space previously devoted to one “article,” preferably with photos and good design.
- I would have called that “fact file” an “alternative story form,” but that’s vague and it soon won’t be “alternative” anyway. It’s already moving into the mainstream in the digital world. This is the kind of thing today’s students will be asked to do at any digital outlet where they go to work.
- I’m not a fan of gradual change in journalism, but I’ll concede we could be a bit lenient in our demands on “news/feature” presentation. Over a reasonable period, we could work on smarter integration of all elements into these. If they look like “articles,” I don’t mind as long as they read like true stories.
Otherwise, if it looks like an “article,” and it reads like an “article,” kill it! Better yet, don’t let it be assigned in the first place! The reaction I’ve gotten from people who’ve seen me lighting this Molotov cocktail has been along the lines of, “I know that’s how online writing is going, but are you serious about print?” Here’s my reply:
- Go through any issue of your campus print publication. Find any “article” which doesn’t meet the definition of “news/feature” above.
- Ask yourself if the information in that “article” really needed to be conveyed in “article” form.
- I would wager that every “article” you can find would have been better displayed and better read had it been chunks of information, preferably paired with graphic/photo elements.
- Another big upside: Some of those “articles” could have been turned into quite legitimate “news/features” had the writer known from the outset that was the only way to justify the length and been appropriately coached. I love long stories — again, if they are really stories.
How to execute all those “fact file” formats? Hey, I’m just the revolutionary storming the castle, not the architect building the new commune. There are a lot of smart folks doing great work on this. You can start with Tim Harrower’s “The Newspaper Designer’s Handbook” (pages 132-133 in the latest edition). You can look at a lot of the longer “articles” on CNN.com, which on closer inspection will turn out to be formatted as questions and answers, “what you need to know” points, etc. You can check out blogs by Charles Apple and Steve Buttry and follow them and many others on Twitter. The digital journalism folks are accelerating this work every day, and much of it translates to print. Yes, some of your efforts will turn out lousy — but they won’t be worse than an “article.” Vive la revolution!