Will Leitch has an interesting article up on Sports on Earth titled “The Age of ‘OMG! LOL!’ in Sports Media,” where he argues, basically*, that long-form sports journalism is withering in the face of “the tiny morsel that [feels] like it had the best chance of getting attention on Twitter.” (That’s me quoting Leitch quoting Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith. Yikes.) It sucks because it means that all these great articles of two, five, ten thousand words are going unread by the masses while, instead, the masses are fed two sentence takeaways like “Clint Eastwood yelled at a CHAIR! LOL!” or something like that.
* Leitch’s linked-to article is a tad over 1,000 words. I realized I just boiled it down to one run-on sentence. You should read the whole thing, if for no other reason than to absolve me of the obvious crime I just committed given the context. And because if you are interested in the confluence of media and technology, it’s a good piece.
The big thing: The “OMG!” attention culture Leitch bemoans is not a replacement for long-form journalism. It’s an enabler of it.
Answer this question and you’ll see why: “How are you going to get 1,000 people to read what you wrote?” And by “read,” I mean really sit down and read every word, thinking about the nuances.
For most of us the answer is you can’t. You don’t have the distribution channels.
The Internet causes massive media fragmentation. We’re no longer getting our information from the local newspaper, major radio/TV networks, etc. We’re getting it from seemingly everywhere and in little tiny bits from each. Publishers are having a harder time reaching their (old) audiences because the audiences aren’t as wed to them as before. Search engine optimization (SEO) is one of the ways around that, but that requires that the intended reader know what they want before they find it. If you are publishing reviews on high-end digital cameras, Google can get you readers. If you are trying to argue that X should do Y so Z can happen, not so much.
What you have, instead, is a “hopeful moment.” It’s the few seconds someone lands on Aol’s or Yahoo!’s homepage after checking their email; the time they scan their Facebook newsfeed; the dozen tweets they see before they move on to something else; etc. You have a couple sentences, if that, to catch their attention, and to make matters worse, you don’t get to write that sentence. Someone else has to do it for you, because you don’t run the major digital media homepages, you aren’t everyone’s friend on Facebook, and you probably don’t have all that many Twitter followers.
So other people read your stuff, boil it down to these 10 word attention-grabbers, and if it works, the masses become aware of your article. But most of them don’t read it and even worse, they mischaracterize it. (Leitch takes solace in a piece honest criticism a 4,000+ word piece of his received: “Finally, someone had at least read the whole thing.”)
But so what?
Those which get hooked in by that hopeful moment may spread your article, sharing nuance-free summaries with, hopefully, a link. Maybe that picks up steam. Most people — as in ninety percent if not much much more — will be satisfied with the oversimplified and imprecise takeaway, and some of those people will share the article without further introspection. And that’s not OK.
All these people sharing your stuff — even in the basest way possible — will help a part of your intended audience find your thoughts. That audience will read every word. And you couldn’t have gotten there otherwise.
Originally published on August 31, 2012