Journalism and Our Attention Spans

In the year’s final Paul H. Nitze lecture, Nitze fellow and New Yorker senior editor Nicholas Thompson spoke on how, though the internet may have seemingly killed attention spans and long-form journalism, the new age of iPads and tablet computers might be reviving the endangered art.

The lecture, titled The Future of Journalism, focused on the way technology has fundamentally impacted how news articles are written and consumed. According to Thompson, pre-internet newspapers and magazines tended to have more of what he termed “narrative journalism,” which consists of highly-researched and developed articles that were typically between 20,000 to 30,000 words. “These stories were thought provoking” said Thompson, “they helped start national discussions.”

Thompson, to illustrate his point, referenced two exemplars of the form:  the 1946 New Yorker article “Hiroshima,” which encompassed an entire issue of the magazine and follows the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and the 1966 Esquire article “Oh My God – We Hit a Little Girl,” which focused on civilian casualties in the Vietnam War.  These articles were written for the purpose of creating a dialogue as well as getting news across to the public, and were “not just dry encapsulations of events … [they] almost had a cinematic quality,” said Thompson.

According to Thompson the advent of the internet changed all of that. He noted that, at first, there was a lot of optimism about the internet’s ability to provide a multimedia experience and easier access to articles. “People who like narrative essays thought that the Internet would be great,” Thompson said, “anyone could access it anywhere.”

However, the internet posed major challenges to narrative journalism. Many were simply economic: people generally refuse to pay for anything online, according to Thompson, and internet advertisement is not lucrative. Web advertising does not bring in enough money to sustain the sort of effort and time that goes in to writing, copy editing, and fact-checking long-form articles.

Money was not the only problem that narrative articles faced on the internet. The average U.S. American, according to Thompson, only has the attention span for around 800 words. He added that they “won’t remember those 800 words anyways.” Thompson said that this was due to the number of distractions present on the internet, including email, Facebook, and instant messaging.

Thompson said internet news today must be “short, snappy, and snarky,” and well below 2000 words, to be relevant.

Despite all of this, Thompson indicated that he was hopeful about the future and the fact that not everyone is following the trend towards short-form journalism. He noted, for example, that the New Yorker and, after having gone through a period of more vapid journalism, Rolling Stone, continued to publish quality long-form narrative articles even in the internet age. Thompson said, “the solution [for newspaper and magazines] is ‘let’s be less like the web … let’s just talk about things that [are] interesting.’”

More intriguing, however, are the examples of long-form narrative journalism that synthesize what is good about the web with what is good about the internet. Thompson pointed out an article/experiment he contributed to during his time at Wired magazine, in which contributor Evan Ratliff concealed his whereabouts from readers trying to fake his own death. Thompson said that Wired, using a set of cryptic clues and a $5000 reward, encouraged readers to create Facebook and Twitter groups directed at deciphering the clues and finding the “vanished” Ratliff.

Thompson also said he was hopeful about the potential of the iPad as a “chance to reboot” the connection between long-form narrative journalism and modern technology. He added that the iPad and the nature of its application system is far more friendly to a subscriber model and provides an overall better reading experience that personal computers or laptops.

Thompson also mentioned the “Atavist” application, created by himself and Ratliff, which focuses exclusively on long-form narrative articles and uses a “layering system” to integrate fact-checking details and multimedia without detracting from the content.

Thompson noted that those interested in long-form reads could find more via the #longform and #longreads Twitter hashtags, concluding, “It turns out [narrative journalism] still exists and that there are still opportunities for it.”

Students seemed generally inspired by Thompson’s discussion. Sophomore Alex Roca said, “I’m going to try and find more of those [long-form] articles personally.” Sophomore Emily Wavering said, “I’m really impressed with the ways we’re bouncing back from the almost set-back of the internet.” She added, “I think we will be able to go back to long-form.”


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