As deep as a raindrop

I’m a news junkie.

Back when every town had at least one newspaper, I used to love sitting in the library reading the daily papers of two or three or even four different cities. I could go on and on about the relative merits of Newsweek vs Time magazine. And then once I became an NPR regular listener, I started to really drive my friends crazy.

As news organizations began opening sites on the web, I thought we might be entering a golden age of information. I was so naive… It’s true that now there are thousands of news portals available on the web, the vast majority of them free. Unfortunately, you get what you pay for.

Gathering news, and putting it into a form that is both informative and interesting takes time. I only free-lanced as a journalist for a while, but because my college career included several years as a part-time student, I had a bit more than four years experience working on college newspapers. My experience taught me a few things:

  • Trying to gather all the relevant information, understand it, condense it into a few hundred words, then re-write it when the editor tells you it’s too long, and by the way, your deadline was an hour ago, is exhausting,
  • No one who has never done that ever believes it is that hard, and
  • No one who has never done it ever believes you did it correctly.

It is hard work. It’s impossible to track down every detail, particularly when writing to deadline. And when trying to keep it within a reasonable size, it’s impossible to include all of the details you have tracked down. If you’re an ethical journalist (or at least trying to be one), the harder you try to be impartial just guarantees that more people will accuse you of bias or inaccuracy.

And because people expect the information to be free, very few sites are able to pay anyone enough to justify the work. Most of them are able to generate a small revenue stream thanks to advertising, but that won’t support enough writers with enough time to write much. So most news sites depend heavily on the ability to link to or crib from other sites. Often what little writing does get done for a site is under an agreement that lets the person sell the same story to other sites.

Superficially, this seems similar to the old print days, when competing publications would carry very similar stories about the “big news” events. But there is a difference.

And don’t get me started on the too-long-didn’t-read people.

This profound lack of depth becomes especially noticeable at certain times of the year, such as during the Christmas and New Year holidays when so many people are on vacation, that even the year-in-review slideshows start looking interesting.

This is one reason that I hope Andrew Sullivan’s experiment with a subscription model can begin to pay off. Pay walls haven’t been terribly successful so far, I know. On the other hand, two of my favorite new “shows” of the last year were crowd-funded web series.

I hope someone figures out something. Because I would love to have some reliable places to get news stories with just a bit of depth in them before I go crazy.

2 thoughts on “As deep as a raindrop

  1. I’ve also noticed a trend toward articles that take a long time to get to the point or suffer other signs of needing more editing before they were posted. I’ve started skipping to the end of articles and seeing if anything interesting is in the last paragraph. It takes time to “write tight” and now that column inches are ‘free’ there is no economic incentive to put the essential information up front.

    1. Some sites that still break up articles into 2-4 “pages”—forcing you to click a link at the bottom of each segment to get to the next—seem to do this on purpose. I get it; it’s an extension of the reason for the page links to begin with. Each click gets recorded as another page view on the site, helping to generate more ad revenue.

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