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Apr 6 / King Kaufman

Dustin Parkes on the “snackable content” era: Quit whining and write something good

Dustin Parkes, who was the Features Editor at The Score before a round of layoffs last year, wrote about “Despair, remorse and hope for writers in the digital age” recently on his personal blog.

He began by talking about the troubles last year at The New Republic, which saw mass editorial-staff resignations after new owner Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder, announced plans to make the venerable magazine a “vertically integrated digital-media company,” which is the kind of talk that sends old-media types running.

In the [social media] pecking party that ensued, The New Republic was elevated to the status of an American institution, in need of protection from being corrupted by everything smart people were supposed to hate. The problem was that The New Republic stopped being relevant a long time before “snackable content” was mentioned in an editorial staff meeting as something to which they should ascribe …

The reaction to The New Republic’s supposed demise came to represent our faith in good writing. It was the substance of journalism hoped for, but also the unread browser tabs of content unseen. We felt more obligated to mourn the impending changes to its content than we ever did to actually read its reporting.

That’s a lot like something I started saying in the years when the demise of newspapers was hitting warp speed, and pundits were wondering who would keep an eye on our government. I said I’d feel a lot worse about losing newspapers as a government watchdog if they actually did some watchdogging once in a while.

Media formats get romanticized a lot. When I was a kid, the grownups talked about the great old days of radio, before TV ruined it. Yeah, right. There were people in my grandparents’ generation who believed the talkies never quite matched the grandeur of silent films.

Formats change, tastes change, and the content itself changes. In Parkes’ words, “It’s absurd to imagine changes in the production and accessibility of writing not affecting how we read it.” He points out that until very recently, storytelling hadn’t really changed since much since we lived in caves, and what we valued as a culture came out of the oral tradition. That means longer, more poetic, more linear works. “But then,” Parkes writes, “whammo!”

The internet changed the dynamic. Content, in whatever form, used to be scarce. When we found something we liked, we wanted to sit with it for a while. Now, we’re flooded with content:

Content is everywhere, and we can pull it from anywhere. Because there’s so much of it, we’re increasingly likely to pull it in short bursts rather than devote ourselves to long engagements.

These are not new thoughts, but Parkes puts them really well, and then ties them to the plight of us writers. Parkes himself, he writes, wants to tell long, poetic stories. But those are unfashionable. That’s what he was doing at The Score when he and his staff were let go, he writes, because the site wanted to focus on “the kind of content users are increasingly coming to us for.”

After such events, it’s easy to adopt a “woe is me” attitude. My skills don’t match current trends. Pity me, then join me in championing a lost art that the mouth-breathing mitten-stringers have decimated. Together, we can collectively mourn our declining culture on social media. What better way than 140 characters at a time?

It would be the same faux debt we pretended to owe The New Republic.

Rather than wallow in self-pity and lamentations for a possibly romanticized past that isn’t coming back, “We should be seeking new ways to express what we want to say in formats that appeal to readers. We have to embrace the restrictions,” Parkes writes.

That reminds me of a conversation I had with Bleacher Report co-founder Dave Finocchio early in my time here about ways to improve the quality of the writing on B/R, which is what I was hired to help do. To me “improve the quality” meant something like “make it more like the writing in respected publications like Sports Illustrated or the New York Times.” The topic at hand was some initiative that, while interesting, didn’t get us any closer to that goal.

Finocchio said, “We have to change the definition of what ‘quality writing’ is.”

You can read that as “dumb it down” if you want, but I think it was very profound. Dave was right. We were operating in a new and ever-changing medium. In fact, it was just starting to radically transform again, to mobile-first. Of course the standards should change right along with it.

Asking “How can a piece of writing be great if it has tweets and GIFs and videos every few paragraphs?” is like asking “How can ‘The Godfather’ be a great movie when it doesn’t have 575 pages, like the book?”

“Just as technology led to writing’s decrease in value,” Parkes writes, “it also offers us the tools to return, accept the changing environment and move forward.”

In response to Parkes, Hardball Talk writer Craig Calcaterra posted How does a writer survive in the era of snackable content? on his personal blog. Calcaterra sums Parkes up this way:

Adapt or perish, Mr. or Ms. Writer Person, because this is a business.

It’s a sentiment with which I completely agree. As I found in my previous career, if you think you’re part of some greater noble calling which should be immune to commercial considerations, you’re gonna find yourself on the unemployment line eventually.

Calcaterra’s previous career was the law. He now makes his living writing short takes about baseball, 15 to 20 a day, which is perhaps not ideal for a writer who is “quite comfortable with more in-depth analysis.” But they all add up to a body of work, Calcaterra writes, that he can be proud of. “Yes, my readers come for laughs and videos and little snacks,” he writes, “but they also know that I stand for some things and that I can be trusted to offer some wisdom or insight on the things that are more or less in my wheelhouse.”

And you know what? In 50 years or so the people who are teenagers now will be wistful about the days of 250-word quick takes with tweets and GIFs. Those were the days, they’ll say, when there was some real writing.