May I proselytize for a moment?
Michael Kinsley has a provocative Atlantic piece basically begging reporters to strip down their overlong pieces to the essentials. But when you read his argument, it’s not really copy length he’s talking about, it’s clarity of topic. And he kind of breezes by the solution to the problem, writing up top, “On the Internet, news articles get to the point.” Well, not always, to be fair to my print-bound brethren; Lord knows I don’t, all the time. But here’s a refinement of the point that, I think, can soothe Kinsley’s irritations: modular journalism! Make just one specific point and leave, developing the story through hypertext and tag clouds.
So here’s what I mean. Check out this Los Angeles Times piece. It’s a good piece about Maj. Gen. Flynn’s intelligence overhaul in Afghanistan and corresponding CNAS paper. But then it’s also a piece about the Afghan parliament rejecting Hamid Karzai’s cabinet. And it’s also a piece about the first U.S. casualties in Afghanistan of the new year. That’s because newspapers that have contracted staff, and particularly foreign staff — like the Los Angeles Times – can rarely allot the space on the physical newsprint for three Afghanistan stories. So poor Julian Barnes and Laura King, being responsible for the edition’s Afghanistan coverage, have to shoehorn three (in this case) newsworthy Afghanistan developments into one piece, even though those developments are perfectly distinguishable. And because newspaper writing conventions lag way behind the physical reliance on newsprint as a delivery mechanism for information, the LAT doesn’t sufficiently feel the need to tease out those pieces into separate ones on its website.
Now, meanwhile at the Washington Independent or on this blog, I’ll run a piece about insufficient full-time staffing for the Middle East Branch at the National Counterterrorism Center. It may be a 1500-word piece. But it’s about just one thing. If there’s stuff that isn’t central to the point but’s still related to the story, I can break that off and make it my next post, linking back to my piece so a reader can efficiently recapitulate the information provided without me doing a whole “Last time on ‘Lost’…” bit. And that way I follow up on what I write, building new reporting and aggregation and pushback and context and leading to the next piece or post. It’s a format that also allows you to drill down really deeply on a given issue, because each sub-topic can merit its own post or piece, rather than having to put everything in the 900 words or whatever your newspaper copy editor tells you is your upper limit. Now, I won’t always succeed, and sometimes my posts or pieces will ramble or otherwise lose the plot. That’s my failure to utilize the format properly, not an inherent failure of the format.
Modular Journalism. I like it a lot.