A post on Digiday, which covers digital media, marketing and advertising, caught my eye this week. The headline: Longer stories draw more attention, but with diminishing returns.
The diminishing returns have to do with advertising. If I’m reading it correctly, advertisers face a dilemma with longer pieces. A reader who scrolls down on a longer story is more likely to be engaging with the story, and therefore more likely to be spending more time with it, and thus more time looking at the ads. But think of all those readers who don’t scroll down, who just read a few paragraphs and then bail out. Advertisers aren’t crazy about placing ads where all those people will never see them.
But what interested me was the question of whether longer pieces drive more attention time, which, as writer Lucia Moses points out, “some are touting as the new metric of choice for digital publishers.”
Citing some analysis by the analytics company Chartbeat, Moses writes:
It’s tempting to think the Internet has not all but killed our ability to slow down and sustain our attention in an era of slide shows, listicles and other easily digestible posts. But the the truth is actually more complicated. It turns out that longer is better at drawing attention, but only to a point. Ironically, it turns out the ideal sweet spot for people’s Web attention span is about the length of a prototypical newspaper article.
While Chartbeat measures in pixels, Moses says that the ideal size Chartbeat found translates very roughly to about 700 to 800 words.
Maybe it’s just an accident that the old-school newspaper folks found their way to that length for a fairly typical newspaper article. But I wonder if their collective wisdom, something they’d come to understand about reading patterns down through the years, led them there.
If you’ve ever read academic writing, you know it’s terrible, turgid, boring, obtuse, opaque and generally horrendous. And if you’re anything like me, you really don’t care why that is. So a Chronicle of Higher Education piece headlined Why Academics Stink at Writing ought to be of no interest.
But I found the story interesting because its writer, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, author of “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century,” doesn’t just talk about why academics stink at writing. He talks about how they stink at writing.
And guess what: A lot of the ways that academics stink at writing are the same ways the rest of us stink at writing. When we do, that is. Here’s just one example:
Hedging. Academics mindlessly cushion their prose with wads of fluff that imply they are not willing to stand behind what they say. Those include almost, apparently, comparatively, fairly, in part, nearly, partially, predominantly, presumably, rather, relatively, seemingly, so to speak, somewhat, sort of, to a certain degree, to some extent, and the ubiquitous I would argue. (Does that mean you would argue for your position if things were different, but are not willing to argue for it now?)
How often have you seen those words in sportswriting, or used them yourself? I would argue it’s rather common. A hedging word I’m sort of partial to is “pretty.” If I want to say something’s good but I don’t want to seem too enthusiastic, I’ll write that it’s “pretty good.”
Oh, yeah. “Sort of” is another one. All hedging doesn’t involve two-dollar words like “presumably.” The concept is the same even if you use relatively earthy words, like “kinda.”
See what I did there? Relatively.
Pinker also writes about apologizing—explaining why your task is so hard, to get forgiveness in advance if your piece isn’t good—scare quotes, which he calls “shudder quotes,” and metaconcepts and nominalizations, which I’ll let you explore. They all involve obfuscation of one kind or another, when the goal of writing should be clarity.
When I advised a college newspaper, I used to tell my students that my main job was to unteach them everything they’d learned about writing in high school and college. That’s because what they teach in those places is acadamese-lite. Get good at that, and you’ll probably stink at writing.
Two quick notes on how people get their news and how they share it.
Pew Research Center recently wrote about some of its findings around How social media is reshaping news:
The ever-growing digital native news world now boasts about 5,000 digital news sector jobs, according to our recent calculations, 3,000 of which are at 30 big digital-only news outlets. Many of these digital organizations emphasize the importance of social media in storytelling and engaging their audiences.
Pew writers Monica Anderson and Andrea Caumont then answer five questions about social media and news. A few bullet points:
- Facebook is the behemoth, with about 30 percent of the population getting their news there. But Facebook isn’t a good to follow breaking news. People use it far more for entertainment and sports news.
- YouTube is a very distant second, followed by Twitter. Twitter users are far more likely to get news from Twitter than YouTube users are to get news from YouTube, but there are a lot more YouTube users.
- The main way users participate in news via social media is by sharing news stories, images or videos. About half of social media users do that, and close to that many discuss issues or events. A smaller but significant number—about one in eight—cover news by posting photos and video.
Don’t be surprised if all of this information changes over the next year or two or three, especially as Facebook continues to tweak its algorithm. Keep an eye on it.
I also wanted to point out a post on Journalism.co.uk headlined How sports publisher Bleacher Report became mobile-first.
Reporter Catalina Albeanu covered an appearance at the Monetising Media conference in London last month by Bleacher Report CTO Sam Parnell, who talked about how B/R moved from a web-first mentality to one in which mobile comes first:
While the app delivered better results than web on the personalisation front, Parnell said he quickly realised Bleacher Report was falling behind on publishing real-time news.
“Most of the teams would get updated every couple of days,” he said. “We were covering several hundred teams and what was really lacking from the app was it needed to be real time.
“People had it everywhere they went, they were checking it regularly, potentially multiple times a day.”
He said this was the point Bleacher Report started to transform as a business, and the product engineering and design teams started to focus on the mobile side, both web and app.
The mobile app became a “flagship experience”, and he said that while an individual visitor would come to the website two or three times a month at this point, app users were visiting closer to 30 times a month.
One more thing Albeanu notes: “This year, Bleacher Report’s product team primarily looks at the mobile app, and not at building features for web first.”
As a writer, are you thinking about how your stories look online? Because that’s how most of your readers are seeing them.
I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about this subject for a long time:
The Benefits of Procrastination & Distraction for writers, by Jane Friedman, who teaches digital publishing & media at the University of Virginia.
Friedman links to three stories that show—
Hey, the game’s on!
Seriously: Go read that post.
CBS Sports Network launched We Need to Talk, a show completely staffed by women, this week. I didn’t see the weekly program’s debut episode. Did you?
Awful Announcing had a good story about the launch, written by Steve Lepore.
He notes that since CBS Sports Network doesn’t have ratings, that won’t be a way of measuring the show’s success. He quotes coordinating producer Emily Deutsch saying that if the show is interesting, “and if we’re bringing another voice to this discussion, I would think that that’s a success.” Lepore continues:
That’s getting around to the real point of why We Need to Talk exists, and maybe needs to exist despite those who think we’ve moved beyond the idea of an all-women’s show about sports: there seems to be a lack of female voices at the table in what is currently in the zeitgeist, the discussion of domestic violence and crimes of those nature committed by athletes. Aside from Outside the Lines, very few seemingly have given equal time to women on an issue in which they should very much be involved.
I agree that we’re not beyond anything. As I’ve mentioned, I’m hosting a radio show on B/R’s new SiriusXM channel. We have three guests most days, and we talk about sports and the issues around sports. There’s been plenty of talk about Ray Rice, domestic violence, Hope Solo—the issues that the women involved with We Need to Talk mention as making this an ideal time for the show to have debuted.
One of the show’s producers, and to date the main guest booker, is a woman. We’ve talked about wanting to bring diverse voices on the show as I interview sportswriters, broadcasters and others around sports and sports media.
We just finished the show’s first month: 93 percent of the guests have been male, 90 percent have been white, and 84 percent have been white males.
And that’s with us trying to book diverse guests, actually thinking about it. Of course “trying” isn’t enough, and anyway we can try harder, which we’ll do. I hope you’ll hold me to that.
Mathew Ingram of GigaOM could have included Bleacher Report as an example in this recent piece about how successful digital media outlets like Gawker, Buzzfeed and Quartz think about news as a service, rather than as something they create and then distribute to a waiting audience.
With or without B/R, the piece is excellent, and worth reading. Ingram writes:
Many media companies and publishers do occasional customer surveys or focus groups. But these tend to be primarily marketing exercises, and ultimately just reinforce existing design and content decisions that have already been made by editors. For the most part, such organizations see their job as coming up with great ideas and producing great content—a process that usually takes place with zero input from readers—and then delivering that content on a variety of platforms. In effect, a one-way relationship …
Thinking about news or journalism as a service or product, however—especially a digital one—changes the way you think about your job. [In that case], you are thinking about how to understand what it is that readers want from you, and how to provide it to them in the best way possible.
In order to do that properly, you have to experiment, and iterate rapidly, and most of all use data to watch what your users (or readers, or customers, whatever you choose to call them) are doing with your product.
I tell this story a lot, and in fact just told it this week to a UC-Berkeley School of Journalism class that was visiting Bleacher Report’s office: When I came to B/R after more than two decades in the business, the biggest difference for me between Bleacher Report and every other media outlet I knew about was that B/R acted like, and thought of itself, as a product company.
I, and everyone I ever worked with, had always thought about journalism as an art form, though none of us ever would have described it that way. But we acted like it. As Ingram describes it:
Journalists often seem to believe that their job is to tell the reader what they think is important or relevant, rather than thinking of journalism as a service that they are providing, one in which the reader’s needs or desires are paramount, rather than the journalistic instincts of the author.
He also describes Snow Fall, the New York Times’ famous innovative multimedia project released in 2012, as “a great piece of content that the NYT dreamed up and then pushed out the door.” That’s pretty much how artists do it, right? You dream up the work, create it, release it, and then try to market it as best you can, or better yet let the marketing people market it.
That’s not how content works anymore. Ask B/R bigwigs what business Bleacher Report is in and they’ll say something like: Providing the best experience for sports fans around the teams and topics they’re interested in. That sounds like journalism as a product or a service.
I’m not one of those bigwigs, in case you’re wondering. But that’s how I answer too.
Fareed Zakaria worked for Newsweek when it was under previous ownership. Readers are advised that some of his articles have been the subject of complaints claiming that they contain material that should have been attributed to others. In addition, readers with information about articles by Mr. Zakaria that may purportedly lack proper attribution are asked to e-mail Newsweek at email@example.com.
Zakaria’s most recent Newsweek article was published in September 2010. IBT Media, the current owner, announced its acquisition of Newsweek from IAC/InterActive in August 2013.
It’s a nice use of the medium that Newsweek wants to crowdsource its plagiarism check, asking the audience to find any instances of Zakaria copying content from others without attributing it. On the other hand, it’s a little strange. Doesn’t it seem like Newsweek is saying, “We think there’s plagiarism in here, but it didn’t happen on our watch, so don’t blame us, and we’re not going to look for it. You can though!”?
And believe it or not, that’s not even the strangest Zakaria response this week. That honor goes to Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” who defended Zakaria on the show over the weekend. Referring to the anonymous bloggers at Our Bad Media, who have repeatedly pointed out Zakaria’s plagiarism, with clear citations and examples, for months, Stelter said:
It is clear to me that these anonymous people are waging a campaign against Zakaria, not just against his CNN work, but his columns and books, too. I believe that most of their claims about [Zakaria's CNN show] “GPS”—26 total—do not hold up under close scrutiny. The closer you look, the less it looks like capital-P plagiarism.
But when you zoom out, there’s a perception problem. The perception is that, as Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute told Politico, “It seems obvious that Fareed was overly reliant on his source material.”
McBride called some of the examples low-level plagiarism. Politico reporter Dylan Byers likened them to misdemeanors.
Stelter doesn’t ever go into detail about how the claims “do not hold up under close scrutiny.” He also doesn’t say why it’s “clear” to him that Our Bad Media are “waging a campaign against Zakaria,” as opposed to simply reporting what they’ve found, having looked into his work following earlier plagiarism charges. Judge for yourself if Our Bad Media’s findings are “low-level plagiarism,” whatever that is.
Journalist and journalism professor Steve Buttry argues: “Journalism has no such sin as low-level plagiarism.”
Responding to the idea that Zakaria, by fiddling with word order here and there, had maybe not done enough, but hadn’t committed the cardinal sin of plagiarizing because he didn’t copy passages exactly, Buttry writes, “The very act of rewriting stolen material makes a theft more sinister and deliberate than the stupid plagiarists who steal whole paragraphs, passages or stories verbatim.” He continues:
Zakaria was sneaky in his plagiarism. He rewrote his passages, changing a few words, fiddling with the order of facts and points but clearly—again and again—stealing the research and the conclusions and some of the words of other sources, but making it look a bit different. That works if you’re attributing and putting quotes around the words that come from the other source. But without attribution, it’s plagiarism.
Disclosure note: CNN, like Turner Sports, which owns Bleacher Report, is a Time-Warner company.
It took me a while to get around to reading the much-discussed New York Magazine profile of Derek Jeter, but I think there are some nice insights about the media from the famously opaque shortstop who played his last game Sunday.
The story, headlined “Derek Jeter opens the door,” features relatively intimate pictures of Jeter, many of them taken in his homes in New York and Tampa by Christopher Anderson, whom Jeter commissioned to photograph his final year in baseball.
I found the passages where the Captain talks about his interactions with the media particularly interesting. Jeter is obviously a private person by nature—he mentions this at one point in the story—but he also has job-related reasons for not opening up. His job, and reporters’ jobs. New York’s Chris Smith writes:
“In New York there’s a lot of attention off the field, a lot of distractions,” he says. “My job on our team all along is to try to limit distractions and try to keep it about the game. I think a lot of times players get in trouble when they’re asked questions and they think they have to find a way to answer it. If you ask me a question and I say, ‘I don’t know,’ there’s really no follow-up.”
Pretty shrewd, but it’s also one of the reasons writers say Jeter can be a boring interview. “If I was giving them headlines all the time, I wouldn’t have been here for 20 years,” he says. “But they ask boring questions. Give me a different question, and I’ll give you a different answer.”
Jeter has been so committed to the first part of that equation that it’s hard to imagine things would have been different if the media had asked brilliant, fascinating questions, rather than the ones he calls boring. It’s also hard to imagine that in 20 years, all of the questions were boring. In two decades of daily talking, even sportswriters can come up with an interesting question from time to time, just by accident.
Still, I’m OK taking Jeter’s advice to ask more interesting questions. One thing I try to do is picture how I would react if I were on the receiving end of my question. Would I want to answer it? Would I be interested in engaging with it? Or would it be something I’ve heard a million times before, or wouldn’t want anything to do with?
I once got a lesson in this from Tony La Russa, when he was managing the Cardinals. I was talking to him near the batting cage before a game and I asked him some question or other about bullpen usage. “Now, that’s a bad question,” he said, and then he explained to me why it was a bad question: He had no way of answering it without saying something that would hurt the feelings of at least one of his pitchers, and he wasn’t going to do that. The question was a dead end.
I don’t know why he didn’t just blow the question off. I guess he was feeling expansive that day. But I appreciated the lesson and I still think of it often, not in the sense of “How can I ask a question that won’t put the subject in a bad spot?” but more like “How can I ask a question that will make this person say something interesting?” That approach might be different for different interview subjects.
There’s one other little gem in that answer from Jeter: “I think a lot of times players get in trouble when they’re asked questions and they think they have to find a way to answer it.”
I agree, and thank goodness for that, right? A related point is that one of the greatest tools an interviewer has is silence. Most people hate silence in a conversation, and will make an effort to fill it by speaking. Sometimes the best question is simply an interested look at the end of an answer, a social cue that says, “Yes? Go on. I’m listening.” On the phone, good old silence can do the trick.
At that point, clearly, Jeter’s done talking. Most people aren’t.